Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Did Russian Civil Society Wake Up In 2011?

A "For A Fair Election" protest on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue on December 24
A "For A Fair Election" protest on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue on December 24
By Brian Whitmore
Like many of his generation, Aleksandr Gorbachev steered clear of politics for most of his adult life.

He moved to Moscow in the autumn of 2001, graduated from the prestigious Russian State University for the Humanities, and ultimately landed himself a good job as a deputy editor at "Afisha," a popular lifestyle magazine and web portal.

"I always thought of my generation as one deprived of historical opportunity," the 27-year-old Gorbachev wrote in a recent column explaining his reasons for participating in antigovernment protests.

"I haven't had a lot to complain about over the past 10 years. I have a job, a career, wealth, and comfort.... But eventually you want to become part of something bigger than yourself -- especially in a territory of 150 million. You want to feel not only that you belong to this territory, but that it belongs to you."

Gorbachev's journey from apathy to activism reflects a common refrain among many of the previously apolitical young professionals who comprised the backbone of the massive protests that attracted tens of thousands to the streets of Moscow and other cities in December.

In many ways, 2011 was the year Russian civil society woke up from its long slumber and found its voice -- powered by a newly politically conscious urban middle class.

"What you've got are the Moscow and St. Petersburg middle classes, who are used to choice and excellence in their private lives, becoming increasingly aware that they are not getting choice and excellence in the provision of public goods, in what the state does," says longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, Central and Eastern European correspondent for the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the book "The New Cold War."

The disputed December 4 parliamentary elections and widespread reports of massive voter fraud provided the spark that brought the protesters to the streets in numbers unseen in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- and unthinkable for most of Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule. But the underlying causes of this revolt, most notably mounting anger over official corruption and impunity, have been fermenting for years.

The increased wealth and confidence of the urban professional class, its newfound ability to organize over the Internet, and a global atmosphere of protest that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States also contributed to a combustible mix.

"It was a perfect storm. And it's one that, I think, was foreseeable. But people in the system either diminished it, or didn't care, or thought that they would just ride through it," says Nicholas Gvosdev, a professor of international politics and Russia specialist at the U.S. Navy War College.

A Victim Of His Own Success

It's not difficult to understand why. Not so long ago, Russia's urban middle class was solidly behind Putin, grateful for the stability that allowed it to thrive even if it meant giving up some political rights. But as was the case in South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile in the late 1980s, once confident and comfortable, newly minted middle classes tend to clamor for their political rights.

PHOTO GALLERY: The best Russian protest signs:
  • "4 + 9 = 49" is a reference to the 49 percent that Putin's United Russia party received in the elections, which protesters dispute.
  • After the first round of protests, Putin had compared demonstrators' white ribbons to condoms.
  • "Don't reuse a used tandem," a wordplay that touches on Putin's condom comparison. 
  • "Sacrificing freedom for the sake of security gives you neither"
  • "You can fake election results, you can't fake freedom"

  • "Where's my money from the [U.S.] State Department?" Putin had said that protesters took to the streets after comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
  • "Puck Futin"
  • A reference to Russian prison tattoos, where criminals who receive a third term would receive a tattoo of Orthodox church domes. Putin is seeking a third term as president.
  • "Swindlers and thieves, get out!"
  • "I'm here for free"
  • "No voice, no choice"
In this sense, analysts say Putin has in many ways become a victim of his own success.

"Putin in 1999 and 2000 laid out a vision for where he wanted to go, and now he is reaping what that vision has produced: a middle class that is more wired and more modernized. Now this is what he has to face," Gvosdev says. "Having pushed for these developments, having pushed for a focus on the economy, having a middle class or at least more of a middle-income society, there are expectations now and people want those expectations to be met."

The mass protests in Moscow and other cities on December 10 and 24 were largely organized on social-networking sites like Facebook and Vkontakte.ru, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Internet penetration Russia-wide reached 43 percent in 2011, with an estimated 60 million citizens online. In large cities, most estimates say it is as high as 70 percent. Moreover, according to NewMediaTrendWatch.com, "Russians are the heaviest social networkers worldwide in terms of time spent per user."

The dissent that reached critical mass after the December elections had been building for years. There were large demonstrations in Vladivostok in December 2008 and in Kaliningrad in the summer of 2010, the latter resulting in the resignation of the regional governor. Ecologists rattled the Kremlin with protests to prevent the destruction of the Khimki Forest near Moscow to make way for a new highway.

Whistle-blowers like police officer Aleksei Dymovsky, the "YouTube cop," exposed official corruption in videos posted on the Internet. Motorists fed up with the blaring sirens used by government officials began driving around with blue toy buckets on top of their cars mocking the elite's flashing blue lights.

Entertainers like the rapper Noize MC, veteran rocker Yury Shevchuk, and popular actor Aleksei Devotchenko began to speak out forcefully against the government.

In November, just weeks before the State Duma elections, fans at a martial arts boxing match in Moscow appeared to boo Putin when he addressed the crowd. Many observers saw that incident as a harbinger of trouble ahead for the authorities.

Many analysts have suggested that it was actually Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin rather than allow President Dmitry Medvedev to serve a second term that mobilized popular discontent with the authorities.

Fear Of Reform

In the eyes of many Russians, this was a signal that all the talk about reform and modernization throughout Medvedev's presidency was empty rhetoric. Moreover, the job switch in which Putin would become president and Medvedev prime minister was seen by many educated middle-class Russians as insulting.

A rally in St. Petersburg on December 18 to protest alleged violations in the parliamentary elections of December 4 and government policies.A rally in St. Petersburg on December 18 to protest alleged violations in the parliamentary elections of December 4 and government policies.
A rally in St. Petersburg on December 18 to protest alleged violations in the parliamentary elections of December 4 and government policies.
A rally in St. Petersburg on December 18 to protest alleged violations in the parliamentary elections of December 4 and government policies.
Moreover, Kremlin-watchers say the way the decision was sprung on the public at the September 24 United Russia congress appeared poorly conceived and incompetently executed.

"If that had been the plan, they should have signaled it clearly a lot earlier rather than allowing a lot of people to assume that Medvedev would be around and there was some hope for his legalistic modernization," says Mark Galeotti, a Russia specialist and professor of Global Affairs at New York University. "Whether it was because Putin liked the idea of making a splash or whether there were negotiations down to the wire, they handled that appallingly badly."

Unable to ignore the demonstrations, the authorities have recently made a series of moves to assuage the protest mood. Medvedev has proposed restoring the direct elections of regional governors and an easing of the rules for registering political parties and presidential candidates.

But the changes, if enacted, would not take effect until after the current election cycle has run its course and, presumably, Putin has secured himself another term in the Kremlin.

Thus far, the Central Election Commission has registered four candidates for the March 4 presidential election -- Putin; Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov; Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democrats; and Sergei Mironov, leader of the center-left A Just Russia.

None is expected to mount a serious challenge to Putin, and it is unclear whether a potential candidate closer to the protest movement, like attorney and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, would be allowed to run.

What Next?

The Kremlin has also made some personnel changes that at first glance do not appear at all aimed at compromise with the protesters. Hard-liner KGB veteran and longtime Putin associate Sergei Ivanov has been appointed Kremlin chief of staff. Meanwhile, deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, the regime's unofficial ideologist, was replaced by longtime Putin loyalist Vladislav Volodin as the official who will oversee elections and the political system.

Surkov has recently suggested dialogue with the protesters, and his replacement with Volodin has been widely interpreted as a signal that the Kremlin may be preparing to take a harder line.

Some argue that Putin's political coming-of-age during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika period made him allergic to any real political reforms.

"He saw an attempt at reform, an attempt to save the Communist Party, bring the whole thing down. Therefore, I think he does believe that if you start making substantial changes it actually can bring the whole thing crashing down. And I think he is right," Galeotti says. "The point is, I don't think he has any other answers. The range of options available to Putin is strikingly limited. He just has to play the cards he's got and hope that it works."

But with the rising discontent and the proven ability of the protest movement to put tens of thousands of people on the streets, observers say Putin will probably have no choice but to reach some kind of accord with them.

"The genie can go partially back in, but the bottle will have to change its shape. You can't force everything back into the pre-2008 mold because that's where you'll get an explosion," Gvosdev says, adding that much depends on whether the protesters -- and civil society as a whole -- can keep up the pressure on the authorities.

"If 2011 marked the reawakening of civil society then 2012 will pose the question: OK, it woke up, now what? Where does it go from here? Does it go back to sleep? Does it get co-opted? Does it break up? Or does it create an irreversible shift that moves things forward?"
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 29, 2011 13:44
As the always insightful Edward Lucas makes clear in the text, the answer to the question posed in the headline of this article is very clear: NO!

If there was an awakening, it was only of a certain social class IN MOSCOW, and to a much, much lesser extent in St. Petersburg. NOPLACE else, and in no other class stratum.

What's more, mixed in with the "awakened" Moscow class is a disturbing array of nationalists and communists, and the "leadership" (if so it can be called) of the awakened class is linked to that unsavory element as well. Navalny's nationalist bent is well known.

So to claim that some type of democratic movement is sweeping Russia is pure nonsense, and the euphoria expressed by some sympathetic Western journalists deeply misleading.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
December 30, 2011 00:15
Why you call yourself "Russophobe", if you just profanelly
summarize what I commented in the previous article
of similar nature here?
I am not Russoiphobe, even being victim of treachery
and destruction of my life by Moscow and Russia
since 1943-47 till present?
Unless you translate "Russophobe" as being so
affraid of Russia, you write by their command...
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 30, 2011 10:34
Maybe you should read our blog, one of the oldest and most significant Russia blogs in the world, before you gibber your jabber.

In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
December 30, 2011 14:22
Most significant blog in most insignificant country,
Russia, that usurped since Peter and Joseph all
That neighbors created, be armed and mighty,
I didn't read, canning Russophob, about fall
Into your own trap of "Oboroten Russofill".

Is "gibber" and "jabber" about "Frenchy"?
I am not a French. Or is it same Rashka,
Threaten "Uden, Polaks and Studentchy"
In a new nazi Rashka verbal "blyashka":
"Giblyiy" (you dead) and "Jaba" (frogg)?

What an ugly smell you bring with it...
In Response

by: Lala Pussophile from: Shamerica
December 30, 2011 00:27
Aaaah,what would the sleeping russians do without the bleeding heart concern for de mock racy by people like tra la la russophobe??? The mind boggles.But its good to hear the land of the free and home of the brave sold 30 billions worth of airplanes to a human rights champion in the region-good old Saudi Arabia-wih such strategic allies like the shamericans who needs democracy in Saudi Arabistan???
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 30, 2011 10:36
Pretty hilarious! You say we side with the protesters, and Tanya says we hate them. That's the inevitable reaction when you simply side with the truth, something we wish more Western reporters would do. We've been consistently criticizing those reporters on our Twitter feed, maybe you should read it before you gibber your jabber.
In Response

by: Tanya from: USA
December 30, 2011 04:22
La Russophobe. Your intention is very clear - you are trying to asperse Russian protesters. But you should think twice before you write it: if everybody - communists, nationalists, liberals join the protests against the rulers, the chances of rulers to sustain the power are not so good. That what people can understand from your comment. Protest took place more than in 100 cities, for your information.
In Response

by: Dragan from: Serbia
December 30, 2011 08:56
We have seen all benefits from so called democracy. I hope the Russian people will not face the same adventure.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 30, 2011 10:33
Tanya, you're simply wrong. On 12/24 there was virtually NO protest activity in ANY city except Moscow. When Yabloko tried to organize a protest, and when Udaltsov's supporters did so, the result was spectacular, humiliating failure even in Moscow. And even in Moscow, the turnout was a TINY fraction of the giant city's population. Indeed, our intention is very clear: To call for accurate fact reporting about the protests, and the challenge the protesters to (1) get a real leader, (2) create a real party, (3) establish a real organization, with national funding and (4) do something meaningful, rather than just demanding that maniacs like Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov get more power. Your intentions however, are rather unclear. Do you want to turn a blind eye to the obvious and serious faults in the movement, and thus help it fail?
In Response

by: Tanya from: US
December 30, 2011 17:40
LaRussophobe.You need to learn how to think clear and to observe things more realistic.
The Russian government- funded news agency reports about protests around the countries.
1.Protesters clear demand new elections.
2.It is not a political movement, it is civil movement.
3.Why everybody who feels himself betrayed has to organize a political party?
4.The idea that somebody from a foreign country finance the protests is really silly one.
In Response

by: rick from: milan
January 02, 2012 21:19
Tanya from: US wrote :

"4.The idea that somebody from a foreign country finance the protests is really silly one. "

see this "revolution.com" and than speak !

unfortunaly you can find it only in Itlian adn russian

in english there isn't ....



In Response

by: Mamuka
December 30, 2011 05:14
By comparison, let's look at Georgia. There is relative poltical freedom there and widespread discontent and frustration with Saakashvili. Yet the political opposition is fragmented and disorganized. The people who oppose Misha really have no viable party to turn to (at least so far).

Now look at Russia and the conditions for developing a meaningful political opposition (ie somebody to vote for) are much much worse.

I'm afraid I have to agree with La Russophobe on this one.

by: Alex from: LA
December 30, 2011 09:06
Some countries build reasons to invade, this could be one of those things. State vs. state conspiracy that turns into reality of war. We are in state of RESOURCE BULLING WARS, where powerful enough nations like mine, the US that spend trillions over the decades to build up our military and alliance's military to take what is others by way of international law that we write and don't follow, but we make you sure that everyone else bends backward to do so. We have higher corruption rate than anywhere else in the world, but that's out of the today statistics, because we made those agencies that make those stats for the world to see and wonder. Has our gov't done anything to combat any corruption, hell no, they inhibit it, they are trying to overdose it.

Everyone is stealing in one way or another (illegal or legal) Russia, USA, UK (worlds oldest corrupt state), France, China, no need to mention Greece and Italy and the rest of the world tries to keep up with the of people that where not born privilege like them. What I mean by that is if something is illegal for me do to, that something is harming either for one person or many, its illegal! What these people in good positions do is they twist words around and they make those illegal things legal only and only if you're on the same yacht with them.

Example: why are corporation allowed to scalp on FOREX market where their servers are right next to the official servers that give out all the prices for currency exchanges. I'll tell you why, only after I explain scalping on FOREX, that is when someone or some entity makes financial GAIN/loss on short market movements during the time of sideways trading time. More specific lets say the dollar vs euro is trading back and forth between 1.0000 and 1.0020, these corporation run a software where it makes money for them between those numbers. they should NOT be allowed to do this but yet they are and the part where I said their servers are next to the official ones is because they want their trades to go through fast and easy without mistakes or delays. The day/night trading is for peoples choices to make a gain or incur loss, not for a program to make money for you, it should be ILLEGAL, its a crime against the CURRENCY of that nation, if any economist or politician understand this, if they do, then they are the thieves themselves, that's why its legal. Even with corruption they, the corporate world was able to lose billions of peoples money (as it was SPENT IT) and asked for bailout from the same people it was suppose to serve BY LAW. The world corruption is at its highest since Byzantine Empires downfall days. There is another EMPIRE on its collapse and others RISING, WE THE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD must REGULATE THESE CORRUPT NATIONS, ELITES, OLIGARCHS, or what ever other word we or they might invent for themselves.



I hope this gets posted because I will save what I said here and will post it until it I see, I want people to read the about the unwritten and unspoken truth about today's corruption and its concealing.


by: La Russophobe from: USA
December 30, 2011 11:14
Recent polls show that Russians totally reject Navalny's call for new Duma elections and will NOT vote for him for president.


Nothing whatsoever has changed in Russia, except the fevered desire of some Russia correspondents to generate a story where there is none, conveniently making themselves more important.


by: Anonymous
December 30, 2011 15:25
I want to say something to all
I know how many Russians and Russia
and I am sure that they know very well
that Putin is not the best for their country

but they are also sure

that Putin is the least worst for their country !

This is the real problem for Russians

They knows that can not do without Putin

because if there is something about which they are really afraid

is come back to the 90' years

in the time in which was in power

the loved only by Western chancelleries

Boris Yeltsin

This is the Russian nightmare !
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
December 31, 2011 13:29
Yeah, from the West's point of view, Yeltsin was the most perfect president imaginable for Russia. Russians held a different view ...:(! I remember once being on a Moscow bus in the mid-90s, and watching a man sitting up front with a mangy, ill-tempered cat. As passengers crowded onto the bus, the cat spat and hissed at them. Finally, a woman commented to the guy-- "That is some cat you have there." The man laughed loudly (he'd clearly had a few), and commented for a couple minutes , again loudly, on the cat's bad temper, ugliness, etc,. He paused and then wound up... "... and his name is..." But the crowd of passengers finished it for him-- "Yeltsin!," they yelled out in unison. "Exactly," he replied. Everbody had a grim laugh. Yet the following year, Yeltsin "won" the 1996 Presidential with an approval rating under 5%. The West hailed that result as a triumph of democracy. Hypocrisy and electoral fraud is not the sole province of United Russia and Putin...

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
January 02, 2012 06:19
You know, there was a civil society pretty awakened long before this latest round of rather manipulated rallies -- it was just very small and scattered -- the Khimki environmental protests, Oleg Kashin, the journalist whose arm was broken, Navalny with his popular anti-corruption blog, the old Soviet-era dissidents still going strong like Ludmila Alexeyeva, demonstrating for the right of assembly (art. 31 of the constitution), the blue buckets protests of drivers and so on. It's all been there and reported by bloggers in Live Journal, who seem to have increasingly moved to Facebook. But with occasional beatings and arrests (like the horrible assault on Kashin), with actual assassinations of journalists like Anna Politkovskaya, you could say civil society made a kind of internal exile, spending its time on magazines like Snob or going abroad for study or working in business. Just like the Soviet Academy of Sciences inevitably supported the dissident infrastructure with its no-show jobs and library days, so Putin's oil riches have created a blogging middle class that grew at his expense. But La Russophobe is right that this isn't everybody, and that only 200 showed up to protest Udaltsova's arrest.

Even so, remember glasnost and perestroika? They were all managed and staged and incremental and dosed at first, and people seized them and went with them. So Surkov's Propaganda, NTV, which turned against Putin in a day (after harassing Golos just the other week). So stage-managed, yes, and limited to pampered Muscovites, yes, but these things have a way of getting out of hand. People in Barnaul run with it as we can see on Youtube.

Two things to watch -- Vkontakte and Durov. Will he hold out and not delete the protest groups? He sure didn't have a problem deleting the support group of Belarusian independent candidate Andrei Sannikov when ordered. And then Just Russia -- will they be utterly coopted? Will they be a vehicle for managed change? Or will they be unable to serve as a relatively liberal movement holding back the more extremist communists and fascists and provocateurs.

It's Russia, after all. Remember Chernomyrdin? "We wanted it to be better, but it turned out like it always does."

Western journalists are premature and aren't thinking of the benchmarks that would signal real change -- like release from prison of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev and registration of independent parties like PARNAS.

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