Putin risks losing Moscow

Russia’s revitalised pro-democracy movement is increasingly gaining ground in the Russian capital.

Moscow rally
Tens of thousands of people rallied in Moscow on August 10 to protest the exclusion of independent candidates from the local elections [AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko] [Daylife]

On August 10, opposition supporters held a mass protests in the Russian capital, Moscow, for the fifth consecutive weekend. The current wave of protests was triggered by the decision of the electoral commission to disqualify opposition candidates from running in the elections for the Moscow City Duma, a powerless legislative body that rubber stamps Mayor Sergey Sobianin’s policies.

While organisers of the previous two demonstrations were not able to obtain official permits from the municipality to hold them, which resulted in a mass crackdown, this Saturday, the demonstration was authorised and attracted a large crowd of between 50,000 and 60,000 people.

That made it the second-largest rally since the height of the 2011-2012 Bolotnaya protests which were triggered by the rigged Duma election in December 2011. It was in reaction to those enormous demonstrations that President Vladimir Putin took an extremely harsh stance on the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, eventually occupying Crimea and starting a war in eastern Ukraine. For several years, it seemed that he had succeeded in outsourcing domestic political confrontation to the neighbouring country. His popularity ratings soared, while the opposition appeared divided and marginalised.

It is quite symbolic that when tens of thousands poured into the streets of Moscow on Saturday, Putin chose to be in Crimea, still holding on to the legitimacy it gave him five years ago. But the nationalistic fervour over the annexation of the peninsula has worn off by now and the president appears to be back at square one. Today, his approval ratings are back to what they were in the early 2010s, while the opposition has managed to regroup and is once again capable of mobilising people for large rallies.

A recent poll has shown that some 37 percent of Muscovites support the protests and just 27 do not, while 30 percent are neutral. It is hard to say which of the two sides these results have shocked more – the Kremlin, which has been portraying the protesters as marginal, with no real popular support, or the liberal opposition, which got used to the idea of being a small dissenting minority in a society that seems to adore strongmen like Putin.

The implications of such growing disaffection in Moscow are significant. In a highly-centralised state like Russia, the capital is possibly the only place that really matters when it comes to regime change. It is indeed the peaceful revolution in Moscow in August 1991 that ended communism and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union. That revolution was preceded by two years of gigantic rallies with hundreds of thousands in attendance. Today’s protests are still a far cry from those, but they are growing – the rally held last Saturday was twice as big as the previous, authorised rally a month ago.

One of the main reasons for this remarkable growth in numbers was the Kremlin’s decision to shift from measured intimidation of the opposition to outright terror.

In a gross overreaction, the authorities treated the previous two “unauthorised” rallies as “mass riots” despite them being exceptionally peaceful and law-abiding. In tactical terms, they shifted from targeting individual opposition leaders to punishing random protesters or even accidental passersby.

Over 2,000 people were arrested during the protests on July 27 and August 3. Some were treated with exceptional cruelty and many were beaten. TV producer Dmitry Vasilyev, who suffers from diabetes, ended up in the emergency room after police confiscated his insulin. Protesters Dmitry and Olga Prokazov have been threatened with losing custody of their one-year-old son because they brought him to the protest. Thirteen protesters are now facing criminal charges that could lead to up to eight years in prison. A similar case opened in the aftermath of the Bolotnaya protests resulted in a few dozen people serving real prison sentences.

This collective punishment strategy harks back to the origins of Russian security agencies. All of them are heirs of organisations set up as instruments of the Red Terror, which was launched following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Memories of the executions of every 10th peasant in a village to quell an uprising or of holding families of military officers hostage to coerce them into serving in the Red Army are hardwired into the collective psyche of today’s security agencies.

In addition to punishing random people, security agencies have cracked down on opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK), which oversees Russia’s most potent nationwide opposition network and regularly releases investigations into high-level corruption. By the time opposition supporters gathered on Saturday, virtually every ally of Navalny, including the man himself, was under arrest, while the rising star of the Russian protest movement, Lyubov Sobol, was apprehended in a dramatic raid minutes before the start of the protest. She was taken out of Moscow and released the same evening. 

For now, the effect of the crackdown has been opposite to the one intended. It mobilised many more people to join the protest, while various celebrities, including Russia’s most popular video blogger Yury Dud and rapper Oxxxymyron, expressed publicly their support for the rally and jailed political leaders. 

This protest wave, however, is nothing like Ukraine’s Maidan, which was led by a very wide coalition of disparate political forces – from pro-Western liberals to ultra-nationalists and outright neo-Nazis. Moscow saw that kind of revolution in 1991, with a similarly broad anti-communist coalition collapsing soon after the regime was toppled. Ironically, many key faces of the current regime, including Putin himself, were a part of that coalition 30 years ago.

What we see in the streets of Moscow today is a very distilled value-based liberal movement, largely free from illiberal and unprincipled political allies, which explains its extreme pacifism and aversion to revolutionary action. It genuinely wants Putin’s far-right authoritarian regime to return into the legal field and compete for power in fair elections. This is going to be a very long struggle, with the outcome heavily dependent on how the current wave of far-right populism plays out in the West. But at the end of the day, it might yield more tangible and irreversible results that the much-lauded “coloured revolutions”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.