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29 March 2017

Protests Leave Medvedev Skiing on Thin Ice

Anti-corruption protesters on March 26 were duty-bound citizens, not just “schoolchildren"

Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tried to ski his way out of trouble over the weekend. But his retreat to a luxurious ski resort as protests erupted across Russia only made matters worse. The anti-corruption protests of March 26 are the largest in five years, and were sparked by an investigation into the vast personal fortune of Medvedev. So this was no time for him to be spotted on the slopes.

What these protests show is that the Kremlin’s policy of intimidation no longer keeps Russians from taking to the streets, and Medvedev is now skiing on thin ice. What is equally clear is that the widespread public euphoria following Russia’s annexation of Crimea now seems to have faded far into the past.

Here is breakdown of what has happened so far: A total of roughly 92 thousand people showed up — organizers of the protest estimate 150 thousand. Rallies and demonstrations were held in no less than 97 cities across Russia. More than 1500 were arrested, 1030 of them in Moscow. The Anti-corruption Foundation (FBK) that organized this march was searched, while its employees were detained. Alexei Navalny was arrested for 15 days for disobeying police orders upon seizure and fined 20 thousand rubles for organizing the event that authorities describe as unsanctioned.

Some have pointed out there were many minors among the protesters. Others even go further by labeling it the “Schoolkid Protest”. Granted, the makeup of the crowds at these protests was youthful; but the larger chunk of these younger protesters is made up of people in their twenties and thirties, not minors. If we to look at the age of people arrested in Moscow we would find that only 46 out of 1030 were minors; this proportion is a better indicator of the real demographics of the protest. It is worth speaking of the newfound political awakening of a new generation that joins its fellow citizens in protest. But to say these young Russians are defining and driving forward the movement is plainly absurd. Certainly, the mobilization potential of this generation is higher than  average. The Kremlin has not yet involved them in the sorts of patron-client relations which are largely the basis of its popularity lately.

Yet there are, of course, ulterior motives for observers to exaggerate the presence of school children in the protests. It is easier for the government to combat this movement as a battle of sensible, governing adults versus immature, naive and impressionable children.

This is actually the idea that is being promoted by Kremlin trolls and “patriotic” media and other voices of Kremlin propaganda. It is a clear attempt to devalue the ongoing events, making it look like a simple riot of incoherence. The message for the domestic audience is that the opposition leader Alexei Navalny promised these minors money if they were detained during the protests (this is what Putin’s press secretary Peskov has said). The message for the international audience is a bit different: the younger generation considers those protests a game, has no real agenda and participates in the anti-corruption protest simply because revolt is only natural for rebellious teenagers. 

This over-obsession on the youngsters in the protests clouds over a much more relevant fact: the geography of protest is getting wider. Equally, the focus on local issues has interwoven with the federal anticorruption agenda. It would be more just to say that the March 26 protests were not in support of Alexei Navalny or not against Medvedev alone — but against the existing system as a whole, fueled by discontent accumulated over many years.

It is important to remember that during the protests of 2011-12, people were protesting because of a specific event: the falsified Duma election results, the simple fact their votes had been stolen; this past Sunday the majority of people were protesting without anything so particular (The “He Is Not Dimon to You” investigation is rather a relative motive since most Russians knew that this type of corruption was widespread among its elite.) In my view, this implies these protests have a deeper potential and basis than those of 2011-12. If before it was a political event that catalyzed people to go out, today we have tens of thousands of people on the streets because of the essence of what Putin’s regime is. This is a huge difference; the fact it is happening alongside the awakening of the regions is something that the Kremlin’s media channels are attempting to avoid noticing at all costs — sidetracking the attention of viewers as well as hushing up the protest on most federal channels, while manipulatively noting the “unreasonable youth” of protesters.

These objectively ripe preconditions for protests should not however belittle the importance played by Alexei Navalny, one of Russia’s key opposition leaders, who was able to reach this younger generation, whose appearance on the streets has caused all the fuss. The Kremlin has not yet learned how to manipulate this young generation which is not affected by the traditional language of its propaganda and is using social media more frequently than watching state TV. We can’t say they have not tried to win round the generation born under Putin’s rule, but the propagandists have always been one step behind the progress and development of content preferences. According to data by VCIOM, in 2016 the internet is the main source of the news for 62% of 18 – 24 year olds. The older you go, the less they are on the Web. It is only logical that all attempts to win this young electorate over (including the future electorate) are done through the censorship of critical information on the internet, especially on the social media. Aside from repressive measures and the rise in the amount of real jail time for activity on social media (18 cases in 2015, 29 in 2016), Kremlin propagandists are trying to create a uniformity of opinions in social media by buying out blogs and accounts that previously were managed by critical thinking authors and had a certain reputation and credibility. When it became obvious that text format is no longer given as much attention as wanted, their focus shifted to other internet strategies, including memes and de-motivators, video-content and other means.

Despite its seemingly vast methods of influence, the same “TV effect” of propaganda has not happened: propagandists were converting the same symbols that worked for older audiences of traditional media into new forms. Putting it simply they’ve tried to convert what you could call a Kiselev format of state TV news into the internet format. All this  ignores that contrary to a “kingdom of monolog” (the TV), the Web is all about dialogue and interaction. Navalny was able to offer dialogue to “Putin’s generation.”

An important question that many ask today is what repressive measures will the Kremlin introduce now? The most obvious answer is they will hit the internet. The essence of this answer is true, while the sequence has been mixed up. The additional regulation of the internet cannot become the consequence of March 26 marches because it was planned to be regulated as much as possible long before – a fact that is easily confirmed by looking at the Doctrine of Information Security adopted December 5, 2016.

Only out of the few last initiatives to control information flows, we can name a law that prohibit online streaming of court hearings in the media and internet, or the law enacted on January 1st 2017 on “news aggregators,” or the bill passed in the first reading on the pre-trial blocking of the “mirrors” of websites considered to be pirate. This list could go on and on, but all of these conservation initiatives were adopted not because people were out on the streets protesting. The Kremlin does not even need to be irritated to adopt yet another repressive law; these unexpectedly large-scale protests can only speed-up the realization of a strategy that has been long in the making. 

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