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25 May 2017

The Curious Rise of ‘Non-Political’ Protests

The latest events in Moscow are proof that modern Russian protests can be divided into two distinct types: political and ‘non-political’

A protest against a mass renovation plan in Moscow on May 14 stands out not so much for its magnitude or its slogans, as for the scandal surrounding Alexei Navalny and his family being removed from the rally by riot police. As it turned out a bit later, the organisers had initially planned the action as “non-political”, which is what the mayor’s office had approved. Indeed, in this context, Navalny’s presence seems inappropriate. His name has become an emblem of formal opposition politics in Russia — i.e. the struggle for power with those who have practically monopolised it. The focus of these protests was less on gaining power, and more about simply being heard by those already in power. The movement sought to stay “non-political” as that could well be the best way to get the authorities in a mood to compromise.

In the case of the May 14 rally, the dichotomy between the “political” and “non-political” reflects the overall state of political participation in modern Russia. Russians are starting to view politics as a highly formalised institution represented by parties, slogans and flags on the one hand, and as a deadly power struggle on the other. In a fight which Russians consider truly political, the winner takes all, or at least lays claim to everything. In this context, “everything” means the presidency or a party majority in parliament. In this context, keeping demonstrations “non-political” appears both safer and more related to fixing day to day concerns.

According to data from Levada-Centre, the number of Russians who declared that they were not prepared to take part in politics had reached 52 percent by 2017 (with 28 percent “not really prepared”). These record numbers demonstrate that political participation has become an antonym for “self-reliance” in modern Russia. Any interaction with the authorities, whether through bureaucratic institutions or electoral procedures, seems quite undesirable for the population. In 2017, 30 percent of Levada-Centre’s respondents answered that “politics is not for ordinary citizens; the authorities deal with politics”, while another quarter were convinced that “nothing will change”. Such paternalistic behaviour reflects what people understand by “power”. This struggle for power meets the requirements of the current political regime in a country where there is no pluralism of political preferences and there can only be one political player. Rallying becomes political at the exact moment when protesters start encroaching on this monopoly. Any other form of participation is accepted, and is deemed as “non-political”. Accordingly, the protesting community emphasises the role of the authorities as an arbiter who is ready to mediate, solve problems or help, if asked very nicely and frequently. The last large-scale “political” rally was the “March of the Millions” on May 6, 2012 on Bolotnaya Square. The slogan “Russia without Putin” came to symbolise things that could lead to imprisonment or a beating by riot police.

If we look at the messages and slogans from all other protests, we see that the authorities are not the object, but rather the audience. This became especially apparent and contradictory during the March 26 demonstrations: the protesters emphasised that they were against corruption, not against the authorities or in support of some competitor. Appeals to address specific non-political demands and solve problems which any Russian faces on a daily basis have shifted the focus of protests from a political to a more humdrum level. In that respect, Navalny has managed to mobilise more people dissatisfied with embezzlement issues than people who support the idea of Navalny as a prospective president of Russia. Placards brought by protesters included appeals to Putin to look into improving this embezzlement situation. The incarnation of embezzlement against whom Russians were protesting is also important: Medvedev is seen as an ordinary appointee, weak and amenable, and therefore apolitical. The aforementioned surveys by Levada-Centre demonstrate a striking difference between the level of trust in the prime minister and the president: Putin is supported by 82 percent of citizens, while Medvedev is only trusted by 33 percent (52 percent do not trust him), with 45 percent in favour of his resignation. Meanwhile, although Russians became slightly more mistrustful of Medvedev after the March protests, “dislike” towards him is a stable tendency which has been observed in the past.

What renders the situation absurd is that actions which suggest confrontation with the authorities (rallies, protests, demonstrations) logically imply taking part in politics and political action. They are not a struggle for power in its purely narrow, radical and formal sense, but a way to influence the authorities. However, this influence removes formal politics from the agenda if the issue at stake is connected to some day-to-day, mundane, routine, down-to-earth and specific problems. After all, formal politics remains in the hands of those who already have some kind of resources and power. Politics has become elitist, inaccessible to ordinary people who encounter corruption on a daily basis or whose private property is under threat. Politicians have higher-than-mundane problems, such as dividing up profits and positions.

Such an elitist, paternalistic understanding of politics has been created largely thanks to the efforts of the authorities themselves. In the rhetoric of Medvedev, for example, political activity presumes pursuing “vested interests” — i.e. is essentially defined as “dirty business”. Brilliant illustrations of how important it is for the authorities to prevent public participation in politics are the famous video for the song “Baby” by the former singer of Leningrad, Alisa Voks (the video, which urges students to “study mathematics” instead of getting involved in politics, was commissioned by a former presidential administration employee), as well as the mass educational lectures at schools all across the country. This rhetoric hints that confronting the authorities over everyday comforts risks provoking the emergence of political intentions, those very same “vested interests”.

A dangerous naivety underlies the fear of anything “political”: problems in relations between people and politicians must be resolved individually, circumventing the system without upsetting the status quo. Protesters expect the corruption problem to vanish together with one person – Medvedev, and private property to be respected only for the inhabitants of selected five-story buildings. Such an understanding of the problem is unsystematic, or may stem from fear of a systematic approach. Otherwise, the task appears to be too dangerous, far-reaching and virtually unsolvable. “Far-reaching and unsolvable” means it is political, which is not for the common people, but for daredevils who have the resources and capacity.

Things also get political when problems arise with formal political institutions. Disrupting an electoral process or creating a party agenda is also politics. The demonstrations after the 2011 parliamentary elections were also purely political in this sense. This is why the main tasks ahead of the 2016 elections were to create an atmosphere of general boredom and apathy, to make politics boring and useless rather than entertaining and interesting. In order to achieve this, a range of preventative steps were taken: the elections were rescheduled from December to September, ensuring that the election campaign period would coincide with the summer holidays and vacation season; the election day was also shifted to a warm September weekend; constituencies in large cities were divided up in a special way; and there was an attempt to avoid scandalous falsifications during the elections. The result was a record-low turnout, which was quite satisfactory, since the elections were depoliticised and of no interest to anyone.

Such depoliticisation of politics (or careful distancing of people from the authorities) seems like a good strategy to defend someone’s political position. Sobyanin and the mayor’s office are fully aware that they do not represent Muscovites, and Muscovites themselves know this very well. As a result, it is impossible to demand political responsibility from those with whom electoral links have been lost: in depoliticised politics, there is no popularly elected parliament, only abstract authorities with the highest status and powers. Such authorities cannot be addressed in any other way but with pleas for help and salvation.

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