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Russian Protests A Danger In System Without Safety Valves

  • Robert Coalson

Will the Kremlin continue to try to suppress all signs of protest?

Will the Kremlin continue to try to suppress all signs of protest?

Protests in Russia over the last few years have usually involved a few thousand students in Vladimir Putin T-shirts holding signs asking the government, "What can we do for you?"

But protesters in the Far East this weekend waved Japanese flags and called for secession from Russia in response to a government order sharply increasing duties for imported used cars. The order, which takes effect in January, sparked demonstrations by motorists in 25 Russian cities, but the largest protests were in the Far East, where a huge industry has been built up around importing used cars from Japan and South Korea.

The demonstrations are one sign of growing social tensions in Russia resulting from the global economic crisis, the effects of which are beginning to be felt sharply in the hinterland. A poll by the Public Opinion Foundation released this week found that 39 percent of Russians are dissatisfied with the government, while in some industrial regions that figure reached as high as 54 percent. The same survey found that 20 percent of respondents are ready to participate in strikes or demonstrations, while 2 percent say they have already done so.

In the central Russian city of Izhevsk on December 15, some 2,000 people took to the streets to protest rising housing and utilities fees. Rising inflation and scheduled plans to raise domestic natural-gas rates and prices for train fares also have the potential to inflame the public.

Igor Yurgens, who heads the pro-Kremlin Modern Development Institute (INSOR), told "Vedomosti" that further demonstrations are "inevitable" if the government does not act quickly and demonstratively to respond to the public and show it is sharing the burdens of the crisis fairly.

Political analyst Vladimir Prybylovsky also attributes the import-duties unrest to government ineptitude. "It has been said many times, Russia has two misfortunes -- fools and roads," he told RFE/RL. "This [move] can be characterized as stupidity and greed. The ruling class wants to compensate for the problems created by the crisis at the expense of the population."

The move comes shortly after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, at the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party congress last month, pledged not to resolve the crisis at the expense of the population.

"The reserves that have been accumulated will ensure for the coming years the reliability of the Russian budgetary system, independently of the global price of oil or our other traditional exports," Putin said.

"And this means the salaries for state-sector workers, pensions, social assistance will be paid promptly. And the system of social guarantees will function normally," he added. "We will not resolve problems that come up or make up budgetary shortfalls at the expense of the citizens. We don't intend to do that."

Grassroots Opposition?

Writing on on December 16, analyst Andrei Kolesnikov emphasized the "exclusively economic character" of the protests and compared them to the mass demonstrations in late 2004 and early 2005 when the government converted in-kind social benefits to cash payments. Those demonstrations -- just four years ago -- eventually had hundreds of thousands of Russians calling for Putin's resignation and even garnered the support of some prominent regional leaders.

Kolesnikov says the protesters now are not yet making political demands and do not care what political powers respond to their concerns. The discontent would never have even reached this point, Kolesnikov says, except that "the culture of feedback has been lost and the democratic institutions created especially [to allow feedback] have been profaned." The current authorities, he argues, "are unable to hear signals, either weak or strong."

But in Russia, where the Kremlin and Unified Russia have monopolized the political process, there are no other forces in a position to respond to those signals either. Without access to funding or the media, and with no representatives in positions of genuine power because of noncompetitive elections at all levels, opposition political groups will have a tough time translating the public's concrete economic concerns and demands into calls for changes to the political process.

However, that is exactly what a new opposition umbrella group, Solidarity, aims to try to do. Solidarity, which held its founding congress outside of Moscow on December 13 and 14, grew out of the failure of the liberal opposition to gain seats in the Duma during the December 2007 legislative elections.

One of Solidarity's leaders, former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov says that the new movement will seek to revive demand for liberal reform at the grassroots level.

"We began talks on this roughly a year ago, after the democratic parties suffered a crushing defeat in the parliamentary elections," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Of course, many of us democrats justly talked about how the elections were dishonest, falsified, and so on, but it is hard to deny the fact that the democratic parties really did not have at that moment the broad support of voters.

"Unfortunately, many people, many democratically inclined Russians, who wanted to return our country to a European path of development, did not like the democratic parties who were asking for their votes," Milov continues. "So the idea arose to create a single, all-Russia organization that would unite a broad circle of democratic politicians from across the country, with the aim of returning Russia to a normal, civilized, democratic, European path."

Solidarity's leadership includes Milov, former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, and many other leading liberal figures. However, some prominent oppositionists, including Grigory Yavlinsky, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and Republican Party head Vladimir Ryzhkov, have opted out so far. It boasts local branches in 42 regions and an overall membership of some 5,000.

The government's response to the political tensions so far has been to suppress public manifestations of discontent -- the protests on December 13-14 were accompanied by heavy-handed police action and dozens of arrests -- and to co-opt as many opposition figures as possible into the Kremlin-friendly political machine. Milov says he hopes the authorities will be willing to engage the new Solidarity movement in a political process that has the potential to reduce the pressure simmering up from below.

"We are ready and open to a civilized, transparent dialogue. No back rooms. No closed negotiations about possible government positions," Milov says.

"Rather, something like what happened in Poland in the late 1980s: one table with Poland's Solidarity --our choice of name is not a coincidence -- and the Polish Communist Party. We are ready for an open dialogue with the authorities if we see that there is the will, desire, and conditions for such a dialogue," he says. "So far, unfortunately, all we are getting is pressure and we intend to actively resist this pressure."

More radical opposition groups, such as the unregistered Great Russia party, the National Bolshevik Party, and the Left Front movement, see the current rising public unrest as an opportunity to force change through mass protests. National Bolshevik leader Eduard Limonov has said that talks with the authorities are "useless" and says the opposition must "use the crisis" constantly. Such a split in tactics could give the authorities the chance to suppress the entire opposition movement under the pretext of maintaining public order.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this analysis
RFE/RL Russia Report

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to