Regional protests have become a fixture in Russian politics in recent years. This is partly due to worsening social and economic conditions as well as the emergence of well-organised and resilient grassroots networks in several regions. They also highlight four underlying issues that the Kremlin has not been able to solve or wish away. And they risk upsetting some of the basic understandings, upon which the whole political system is built.
The phenomenon of protest movements in the regions is of course not new. 2015-17 saw significant protests in several regions, mostly over social issues such as unpaid wages or unemployment. It was however the Kremlin’s 2018 pension reform, along with consistent and persistent local initiatives – including the network building of Alexey Navalny’s campaign – that really set off the kind of tenacious and confident protests that we have seen in the past two years.
Broadly speaking, protests have erupted over four kinds of issues:
1. Environmental issues have triggered some of the biggest and most successful protest movements: The March, 2019 protests against a Chinese bottling plant at Lake Baikal; the 2018-20 protest movement against the Shiyes landfill and associated waste management projects in the Arkhangelsk Region and the Komi Republic; and this year’s protests against a mining project on the sacred Kushtau mountain in Bashkortostan.
2. Issues related to insufficient or unjustifiably curbed self-governance led to protests in 2018-19 in Ingushetia over a border deal with Chechnya many saw as forced and unconstitutional; last year in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia over a disputed election and the authorities’ action against a “warrior shaman”; in Elista, Kalmykia, over the appointment of a former Donbas commander as mayor; in the Nenets Autonomous Territory against plans to merge the region with the Arkhangelsk Region; and in Khabarovsk over the arrest of governor Sergey Furgal, elected in a protest vote in 2018, on murder charges.
3. Local misgovernance triggered protests in several towns and cities, including in 2018 in Kemerovo after a deadly fire in a local mall caused by official negligence; in Volokolamsk near Moscow over a toxic landfill; last year in Yekaterinburg over plans to build a church in a local park; and this year in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia over confusing and inconsistent pandemic-related rules.
4. Cultural issues have been on the back burner in recent years but they have not gone away and have contributed to the resentment of smaller ethnicities and their representatives towards Moscow. In 2017 several regions with sizeable non-Russian ethnic groups protested plans to end compulsory education in minority languages, including in Tatarstan (where president Rustam Minnikhanov sided with teachers) and Bashkortostan. Other republics in Russia’s Middle Volga region, Udmurtia, Mari El and Chuvashia saw smaller protests. In 2019 the Sami people in the Murmansk region protested attempts to curb their rights over their lands and the elimination of the Center for Assistance to Indigenous Minorities of the North.
Deus ex czar
Of these, protests over local misgovernance were the easiest to solve, if not always convenient, since they did not contradict the centralising logic of the political system and allowed the man at the top to be the solution. The textbook example, of course, is Putin’s trip to the town of Pikalyovo in 2009 where he ordered Oleg Deripaska, the owner of a local plant that had been closed, to reopen the factory, publicly humiliating him in the process. Putin later adapted the format to his yearly call-in shows, taking calls from carefully selected citizens and solving a problem while also chastising an official. Putin did try to handle several protests this way. In Yekaterinburg it worked: local authorities abandoned the disputed construction project once the president gave them a nod. In Kemerovo the results were mixed: Putin managed to get rid of one of the only two remaining governors who took office in the 1990s (the other one, Yevgeny Savchenko of Belgorod, resigned this month), but locals were not thrilled by his arrival and television cameras captured him walking across an empty street, looking beaten, to place flowers at a makeshift memorial.
In general, acting over local crises started to become risky for Putin. As representative political institutions were gradually hollowed out and decisions were increasingly prepared by trusted experts on the side, vetted and adopted by the security elite and the strategists of the Presidential Administration, as mayors and governors were increasingly required to manage rather than to govern their region, a crisis of political responsibility emerged and exposed the president – the only person with publicly visible and tangible authority – to expectations and anger even over regional and local issues, just as Putin was moving away from day-to-day domestic policymaking. Then there is the risk that Putin’s orders are not carried out, as it happened this year when doctors did not get bonuses promised by the president publicly.
Even more importantly, common threads started to emerge between the protests, even as they may have looked isolated and different at the first sight. In many cases local interests, traditions or indigenous communities got in the way of large-scale business projects. Normally it would be the responsibility of governors to negotiate between local interests, but this role has faded as the Kremlin centralised power and resources and appointed a growing number of outsiders to manage regions.
Secondly, in a growing number of regions governors were motivated to side with the protesters or at least show understanding to their demands. In 2017 Tatarstan’s president Rustam Minnikhanov sided with teachers protesting the law on minority language education. The protests against the Shiyes landfill ended with Alexander Tsybulsky, the newly appointed governor of the region announcing that he did not support the project. This might have been a calculated move, but only weeks later Tsybulsky’s own project – the unification of the Arkhangelsk region with the Nenets Autonomous District (NAO) fell through when protests erupted in the NAO over the plans and local officials signalled their disapproval. Radiy Khabirov, the governor of Bashkortostan met Kushtau protesters in August and put a pause on the development of the mountain. Sergey Furgal, the governor of the Khabarovsk Territory turned himself from spoiler candidate to “the people’s governor” almost overnight when he realized, following his surprise electoral victory in 2018, that he could rely on a different source of legitimacy than the top-down sort preferred by the Kremlin.
This puts the Kremlin in an uncomfortable position. Putin has neither the capacity nor, in specific cases, the ability to solve all the problems that trigger increasingly persistent and publicised protests, let alone the underlying issues. Governors cannot solve the problems either without the kind of legitimacy and authority that the Kremlin is very reluctant to give to them (save for some privileged ones, such as the president of Tatarstan and the mayor of Moscow who control significantly larger budgets than the average governor). This deadlock, however, risks creating larger protests, a legitimacy deficit and perhaps even rogue actors within the system.
Cracks and crackdowns
The government’s answer has so far relied on intimidation and framing the problem as a national security risk. The constitution was revised to make it a felony to support any form of separatism, a charge often levelled against regional and indigenous pressure groups. Nikolay Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council warned of foreign powers encouraging separatism in a recent interview. Upcoming bills interpreting the new constitutional provisions will tell us more about the extent to which the Kremlin wants to use this notion to crack down on opposition in the regions.
Intimidation has taken many different forms, from campaigns against the Sami people in the Murmansk region (in media owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin and Andronik Musakyan) through physical attacks on protesters by thugs and vigilante in Bashkortostan and Ulan-Ude to arrests, as in the case of Furgal. But these do not seem to work.
Meanwhile, protests are also less and less isolated. News of the protests in Khabarovsk spread across Russia and likely inspired urban voters to turn out and vote against incumbents in the September regional and municipal elections. Kushtau protesters were inspired by the protest movement in Shiyes, established contacts with Shiyes protesters who shared their experiences with them as well as advices on how to deal with provocateurs.
The 1990s in Russia were a time of increased regional autonomy and fear in Moscow of separatism. When Vladimir Putin came to power, he brought regional elites to heel, made power-sharing deals a thing of the past, and centralised political and fiscal power. This was the story of the past twenty years. But now it seems that Moscow is not doing its part of the deal. In many regions it is unable to solve problems and often unable to offer the degree of dignity, safety and financial security that locals expect. When locals pull out of the deal, however, this will change incentives for local politicians and business elites as well.
When in 2017 Minnikhanov decided to side with Tatar teachers, he went as far as to warn Moscow, in fairly clear terms, that a presidential election was around the corner and his turning out the vote had a price. The protest mood in the regions has surged since and Kremlin does not seem to have come up with answers. And there is a Duma election next year.