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14 June 2017

The monopoly on symbolic Russia has been broken

Putin’s generation is dreaming of a new Russian president

The clashes between the opposition and police in central Moscow during the Russia Day celebrations are unlikely to become a historical event. This is just the start of a new stage in the confrontation between the authorities and the opposition. Nevertheless, that was the day the opposition movement clearly demonstrated some new traits which, most probably, will determine its nature for the next few years.

Politics or provocation?

The first question is whether political actions which risk brutal reprisals from the repressive state system are acceptable. The opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who received permission from the authorities to hold a protest rally on Sakharov Avenue, suddenly announced that the event’s location would be shifted to Tverskaya Street. A large number of his fellow members of the opposition naturally condemned him for this. Indeed, Navalny had asked thousands of his supporters to attend an event unsanctioned by the authorities.

Nobody had any doubts that the authorities would use force and that one of the first arrested would be Navalny himself, so was it really acceptable for the sake of political goals?

The June 12 protest demonstrated that such behaviour is in fact acceptable for a politician. It is all about how the audience perceives what is happening. This was the second time people dissatisfied with the authorities (including Navalny’s supporters) saw nothing immoral in his behaviour, despite the authorities’ efforts to label him an agent provocateur, “Father Gapon” figure. This is mostly due to the fact that the protesters have learned that these police require no provocation, and will readily use force against even the most peaceful demonstration. Alexander Shishlov, the Human Rights Ombudsman for Saint Petersburg (where, incidentally, police detained more unsanctioned protesters than in Moscow) described this situation very precisely: “The June 12 events have once again demonstrated that authorities’ failure to fulfil their obligation to uphold the rights enshrined in Article 31 of the Russian Constitution is effectively provoking people with an active civic stance to stage unsanctioned protests, thus destroying respect for the law and undermining confidence in the state”, stated Shishlov. This diagnosis is relevant to all Russian law-enforcement practices.

My game — My rules

By relocating the rally from Sakharov Avenue to Tverskaya Street, Alexei Navalny also wanted to show that he was not going to follow the rules of the game imposed by the authorities. The authorities are cheats by default and will always try to rig the rules in their favour. But a conversation between equals excludes this option.

In this way, the June 12 protests were also an attempt to hold an equal dialogue with the authorities. It should be noted that the Russian opposition has made no such attempts, virtually since the moment Vladimir Putin came to power. Even during the mass rallies of 2011–2012, the protesters mostly stayed in their approved locations.

A politician of All Russia

Another key status of the June 12, 2017 anti-corruption protests was the very fact that they remained nationwide. Judging by broadcasted videos and data from the police and organisers themselves, the number of cities and participants had both increased compared to the first protest wave on March 26, together with the number of detained, obviously.

Alexei Navalny has managed to become the first Russian politician in many years to receive support in the Russian regions. Perhaps many protesters are not Navalny sympathisers at all, but since there is no better alternative, they are ready to use his initiatives to promote their ideas and start a struggle for power. The old oppositional politicians and parties have long been unable to provide regional activists with such opportunities.

So, apparently, Navalny has become the only true Russian politician on a par with Vladimir Putin, and his rating (and anti-rating, of course) have spread far beyond the Garden Ring. Alongside regional politics, regional political agendas are now emerging, which are often completely different from those of Moscow. This is what we will most probably observe on Single Election Day in September.

Moreover, it does not depend on Alexei Navalny at all. As the incident with the “renovation” project in Moscow demonstrated, he is completely unprepared to work with his electorate within a regional agenda addressing particular problems.

Are the protests getting younger?

During the times of the Cold War, there was the Western media cliché of the “Kremlin gerontocracy”. It looks as if the time has come to resurrect this term for the current Russian authorities. This shows the extent of the rift between the authorities and the new generation of Russians born during the times of Putin or a few years before he came to power.

Many experts, and sociological data from 2011–2012 surveys, rightly point out that youth has always been one of the driving forces behind protest movements. However, the difference between the mass protests of the past and Navalny’s “anti-corruption” strategy is obvious. In 2011–2012, youth accounted for approximately one third of protest participants. Nowadays, thanks to the networked nature of the protests, they have become the organisers. Moreover, the youth element of the Russian protests has become considerably younger. Many participants were schoolchildren, not only in Moscow, but in over two hundred cities where protest actions took place on June 12.

This youth is talking about its civic duty and the social ladders which stopped working in the Putin era. Having lived all their conscious lives with Vladimir Putin in power, this new generation of Russians definitely does not want to live within the current system, because it sees absolutely no benefits in the existing state.

The Kremlin refuses to understand this, however. It trolls young people, labelling them “schoolkids” and blatantly demonstrating its readiness to base the 2018 election campaign on a “father-and-son” confrontation, in the hope that the older generation, who regard their own children with mistrust and disrespect, will vote for Putin again.

It looks like the Kremlin staff have failed to realise or are afraid to tell the president that, in the eyes of this new generation, Putin looks even more comical than Leonid Brezhnev in his declining years. The whole depth of this incomprehension is obvious, judging by the authorities’ Soviet-style PR campaign, in which a dozen specially selected schoolchildren were invited to the Kremlin on June 12 and “Grandpa Putin” showed them round his office.

The war of symbols

The main thing that the authorities are yet to understand is that they are losing their monopoly on “symbolic Russia”. On June 12, 2017, the Kremlin already lost its exclusive right to celebrate Russia Day, which has now become a completely different patriotic holiday – “Russia without Putin Day”. This is unlikely to have been reported to the president, though.

The state will lose its monopoly over the Russian flag and anthem next. For the young protesters on June 12, these are their country’s normal symbols. Young people have no strong feelings about the anthem or the flag, unlike the authorities, who are imbued with USSR nostalgia, or the old opposition who consider the current national anthem Stalinist, not Russian. Protesters confront the police waving Russian tricolours (as we saw in Vladivostok), to the strains of the Russian anthem.

What is the result?

Does this mean that the opposition achieved some significant victory on June 12? Of course not. If anyone won, it was Alexei Navalny personally. Now he can continue his presidential campaign as Vladimir Putin’s main (if not only) real rival.

Did any tectonic shifts occur? For example, have the Russian provinces awoken from their political slumber? Or is it a revolutionary change that young people have turned from being participants to organisers of protests? Also not true. So far, we can only see general trends. The real political transformation will clearly take place later.

But it is the events of spring and summer 2017 that will surely define Russia’s future for the next years or even decades to come. But we will most probably understand this not today, but much later – when the time will be ripe for a new textbook on modern Russian history.

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