Lessons from the “Snow Revolution”

In 2012, the protests staged in Moscow failed to bring change to Russia. Did Navany and the rest of the opposition learn something from it?

Citizen of democratic countries usually have two kind of approaches towards autocracies: they either acknowledge the regime’s stability or cheer its immediate demise when protestors take their grievances to the street. Russia is no exception. When Muscovites and other Russians started to stage marches and sit-ins against vote frauds back in 2011, many thought this would be the beginning of the end for Putin. As we know today, not only did history flow in a different direction, but as of today the president’s grip on to power is seemingly stronger than ever. Nevertheless, the opposition movement isn’t dead in the water: the Moscow municipal elections showed an impressive growth of the ruling United Russia’s adversaries, and the upcoming presidential election will be dominated by Alexey Navalny’s campaign despite the certainty of Putin’s victory.

But has something changed in the last six years to justify a rekindling of hope in Russian politics?

Let’s consider the horror scenario facing Putin in 2011. After the turbulent years as prime minister, a time in which he had to fend off the effects of a severe global recession and presumably palace intrigues aiming at permanently replacing his leadership with Medvedev’s, the path to re-election seemed open. However, a global mood of protest had reached Russia: be it because of an historical oddity or because of genuine inspiration by the bloody events of Tahrir Square and Tunis, for the first time since perestroika a critical mass of Russians decided to participate in a wave of protests in the wake of the blatantly rigged parliamentary elections. As it’s often the case, the challenge posed by the citizens emerged rapidly and without much notice: manipulation and abuse by state officials wasn’t exactly unheard of, and Putin’s personal reputation, as well as that of then-president Medvedev, didn’t experience significant drops during the one year and a half of unrest. But if people were content with their leadership, then why did they hit the street? The answer is a subtle one, as the apparent satisfaction with the head of state doesn’t exclude the existence of other points of attrition with the structure the president supervises, from ministers down to local officials. In fact, the source of traction behind the aborted “Snow Revolution” was arguably its greatest weakness. Decades of mismanagement and corruption had given birth to numerous grassroots organizations and single-issue-movements tackling specific grievances citizens had, such as urban preservation or environmentalist causes.

The fair elections movement was similar in nature, but it targeted a systemic issue which symbolized the same lack of accountability that had led to the problems tackled by other groups. The initial, improvised demonstrations of December 6th, the day after the parliamentary elections, finally set off nationwide protests also thanks to the violent reaction by OMON, the riot police. An additional element which contributed the widening of the protest to other groups was the efficacy of the logistical effort made by the original core of activists. The strong internet presence of the freelance electoral monitors allowed for the rapid creation of structures sustaining prolonged protests. OCD-info.ru allowed to track the arrests made by the police around Moscow; Olga Romanova managed the collection of funds through Yandex Money, a platform by Russia’s most-used search engine which silently rolled out new functionalities easing raising money for immediate rallies.

However, not unlike Occupy Wall Street, this critical mass soon started collapsing under its own weight. Even in the most horizontal structure of protest, a leadership is required to make the calls on highly tactical moves: galvanizing citizens, choosing viable venues, and obviously dealing with the government (at least theoretically no leader has the power to tell protesters to go home only because minor victories have been achieved: greater goals are never lost on members of cohesive protest groups). The 2011-13 protests lacked truly leading figures: the Coordinating Council of Opposition, informally elected in 2012, was at best a very diverse bunch which brought nationalists, communists and other under the same roof. Since most had voted for celebrities and known faces, its composition contributed to the myth of a “muscovite middle class revolt” which further marginalized civil society grassroot movements; even worse, the lacking sense for political opportunity and poor choices led to clashes with the police and alienation of more moderate protestors. The sole focus on the elections also contributed to an erosion of support after the presidential elections of 2012, an occasion on which United Russia could limit vote manipulation and simply profit from Putin’s own popularity.

Six years later, Russia has changed. Putin’s term has been characterized by sanctions and stagnation, but he’s still seen as the only viable option to lead the country. The opposition has however learned much from the “Snow revolution”. The Council of Opposition has melted away, and with it official collaboration between opposition parties, which now operate mostly on their own. Despite this, efforts have been made to win back the local formations frustrated during the protests: the ideological clout paraded in 2011 has been mainly relegated to the background, with more pragmatic grievances taking the main stage. In his phantomic presidential campaign (he can’t be elected because of his “criminal” record, but he’s nevertheless holding rallies and canvassing) Navalny has tried to appear as a recipient of several issues waving the universal banner of fight against corruption and exploiting the lack of geographic boundaries of his blog. Back in Moscow, the liberal Yabloko, reinvigorated by Dmitry Gudkov, and other opposition parties have made considerable gains in local municipal elections, a key passage since any candidate for mayor requires signatures from 10% of local lawmakers to run. The increased apathy from voters on Putin-aligned parties also show that United Russia will need to act quickly if they hope to contain a slow but sure hemorrhage of votes which challenges its leadership. It’s unclear if the Kremlin is running for cover by substituting several local governors, but one thing is sure: however sure Putin’s victory in 2018, the opposition is finally exploiting the systematic weaknesses on which his rule is based. The gambit of ideological politics, of nationalism and militarism are as ineffective as the cry for change which mobilized the opposition in 2011, and if the spoils system of Russian power-sharing began to erode, citizens will turn to those political actors backed by local activists. Today, those actors are part of the opposition.

Sources: Protest in Putin’s Russia by Misha Garbowitch, The Red Web.


Michelangelo Freyrie

All the articles by Michelangelo Freyrie.

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