Protest rally in Abakan against plans to raise the retirement age. Photo by Alexander Kryazhev. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Republic
The Russian Protest Federation: How Moscow Has Stopped Shaping the Political Agenda. Will Ordinary Russians Realize Pension Reform and Geopolitical Triumphs Are Linked?
September 27, 2018
The people who took to the streets long ago on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue deserve the credit for the reinstatement of gubernatorial elections in Russia. It was a time that would be unimaginable now. There was no war with Ukraine. Crimea had not been annexed. No one had given Syria a second thought. It still makes you wonder why the Kremlin took fright then, albeit briefly. Instead of guessing, we should note it was the capital that led the national protest movement then, confirming yet again the centripetal nature of life in Russia. Over a 100,000 people attended the first two protest rallies in Moscow, on December 10, 2011, and February 4, 2012. Petersburg took second place, sending 25,000 people onto the streets for its February 2012 rally, but no one other city was even close. Protests took place in dozens of cities, including all the major ones, but the best the regions achieved was something on the order of 5,000 people in attendance. In most places, the average crowd numbered around a thousand people.
The opposition failed just like the regime. It transpired the national agenda and the agenda of Muscovites were the same thing. The farther you went from Moscow, the less people were worried about the issues exercising newspaper reporters. Least of all were they worried about their own real problems, about local issues, and thus there was no chance of changing things in Russia.
But the credit for transforming gubernatorial elections into something really resembling elections, albeit quite remotely, must go to the regions. The takeaway message is that the regime’s electoral fiasco in the regions on September 9 is a nationally significant event. The rank-and-file voters there, who cast their ballots for sham candidates from parties other than United Russia as a way of registering their disgust with the local political bosses, have turned circumstances inside out. The regions are now dictating their agenda to Moscow, as governors who seemed invulnerable only recently look shaky, and even Putin himself has been forced to break a sweat.
As befits a myth, the Moscow myth that, putting it as succinctly as possible, Moscow is not the real Russia, is not true at all. But, like any good myth with life in it, it is based on real things. As I write this column, water is gurgling in the radiators of the standard Moscow high-rise where I live, because the heating season has kicked off. It is ten degrees Celsius outside, and Moscow’s tender inhabitants would freeze otherwise. Meanwhile, all the news agencies are reporting as their top news item that a place in the queue to buy the new iPhone at Moscow stores will set you back 130,000 rubles [approx. 1,700 euros]. That is expensive, of course, but you would let yourself be seen as an outdated loser at your own peril.
Muscovites protest often, although in fewer numbers than during the fair elections movement. To outsiders, however, protesting Muscovites almost always look like whimsical people who are too well off for their own good. Everyone knows Moscow has wide pavements, new subway stations, the Moscow Central Ring, and perpetual jam festivals and nonstop carnivals on Nikolskaya Street. People who live in places where even today anti-tank trenches pass for roads, and the mayor nicked the benches from the only pedestrian street (urbanism is ubiquitous nowadays, no longer a Moscow specialty) and hauled them to his summer cottage, find it really hard to take seriously people who are up in arms over a new parks whose birches were imported from Germany, and holiday lighting whose cost is roughly the same as the annual budget of an entire provice somewhere outside the Black Earth Region. The residents of “construction trailer accretions” (you will remember that during one of President Putin’s Direct Lines, the residents of a “construction trailer accretion” in Nyagan came on the air to complain) find it hard to understood people protesting so-called renovation, as in Moscow, that is, people who protest the demolition of their old residential buildings and being resettled in new buildings. For that is how it appears when geographical distance obscures the particulars.
The regime has skillfully manipulated this gap. Remember the role played by the “real guys” from the Uralvagonzavod factory during the fair elections movement, or the out-of-towners bussed into the capital for pro-Putin rallies on Poklonnaya Hill and Luzhniki Stadium. But the gap functions as yet another airbag for the Kremlin even when it makes no special effort to manipulate it. Moscow is part of Russia when we are talking about national issues and the fact those issues are debated in Moscow as well, but since any sane non-resident of Moscow believes Moscow is no part of Russia, the big issues end up being issues that exercise Muscovites, but do not interest people beyond Moscow.
The Main Political Issue
Alexei Navalny has bridged the gap slightly. His attempt to set up regional presidential campaign offices seemed absurd since everyone, including Navalny, realized he would not be allowed on the ballot and there would be no reason to campaign. He ran a campaign anyway, and his campaign offices turned into local pockets of resistance, into needles that hit a nerve with the regime while simulatneously stitching Russia together and removing Moscow’s monopoly on national politics. His campaign offices are manned by bold young people willing to take risks and good at organizing protest rallies. Of course, even now more people in Moscow attend Navalny’s protest rallies than in other cities, but people have still been taking to the streets in dozens of cities for the first time since the fair elections protests of 2011–2012. Navalny’s campaign offices splice issues that the locals get with national issues, thus producing the fabric of real politics. When I discussed the subject of this column with the editors of Republic, one of them joked Navalny was a “franchise.” The joke has a point, but the point is not offensive.
It was Vladimir Putin, however, who really turned the tide or, rather, the federal authorities, of which Putin is the living embodiment. The pension reform has made it abundantly clear the Russian authoritarian state no longer intends to be paternalist. The state has suddenly discovered what people actually liked about it was the paternalism. Or they put up with the paternalism. It is hard to say what word would be more precise. But they did not put up with it due to its victories on the geopolitical front.
The pension reform has erased the line between the big issues, debated by well-fed people in Moscow, and the real issues that constitute the lives of real people. This is quite natural, since being able to claim Russia’s miserly pensions a bit earlier in life is more important in places where life is harder. Moscow is definitely not the worse place in Russia to live. Despite the myth, Moscow is no heaven on earth, either, but the central heating has already been turned on, for example.
So, even a dull, boring, well-rehearsed formality like gubernatorial elections has become an effective tool of protest. The regime made a single mistake, a mistake to which no one would have paid attention to a year ago. (Since when has vote rigging seriously outraged people in Russia? Since days of yore? Since 2011?) The mistake set off a chain reaction. The new single nationwide election day had been a boon to the Kremlin, its young technocrats, and its not-so-young handpicked “businesslike” governors. If the elections had not taken place simultaneously everywhere, and the fiasco in the Maritime Territory had occurred at the outset of the elections season, it is not clear how powerful a victory the no-name candidates from the loyal opposition would have scored.
Maybe Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky would have had to disband their parties for fear of reprisals from the regime, since, the way they have long seen things, there is nothing more terrifying than success, and nothing more dangerous than real politics.
A Moscow municipal district council member from the opposition can easily make a coherent, meaningful speech about how the war in Syria has impacted the clumsiness of Mayor Sobyanin’s hired hands, relaying the tile in some unhappy, quiet alley for the third time in a single year. The council member’s speech would elicit laughter, and the laughter would be appropriate. But amidst the customary laughter we need to be able to discern the main question of a reemergent Russian politics.
The issue is this. Will ordinary Russians understand—and, if so, how quickly—that the pension reform (the first but not the last gift to the common folk from their beloved leaders) is part and parcel of the mighty Putin’s geopolitical triumphs, their inevitable consequence, rather than a betrayal and a rupture of the social compact, as certain confused patriotic columnists have been writing lately?
Ultimately, it is a matter of survival for Russia and for Putin. One of the two must survive. As in the films about the immortal Highlander, only one will be left standing at the end of the day.
Ivan Davydov is a liberal columnist. Translated by the Russian Reader