A new analytical report from the Kryshtanovskaya Lab describes the challenges facing the Russian opposition and sparks discussion about the future of the Russian protest movement.

The Russian oppostion at a crossroads. Photo: Ruslan Sukhushin

A group of prominent Moscow sociologists at the Kryshtanovskaya Lab recently released a new report, “The Dynamics of Protest Activity: 2012-2013,” which outlines the major challenges facing the Russian opposition. The report has already generated debate and discussion about the future of the nation’s protest movement.

One of the most controversial findings of the report is the assertion that a small nucleus of protesters are radicalizing the opposition movement and changing their tactics in an attempt to attract more supporters.

The researchers interviewed 309 of the nearly 8,000 participants who attended the May 6 rally earlier this year in order to find out their motivations, expectations and attitudes toward the authorities. They also surveyed them about their previous protest experience

Young opposition needs drive and action

The major conclusion that the authors of the report came up with is that the protest movement is becoming older and more radical, while at the same time, the absolute number of protesters is steadily decreasing because of political pressure. Yet, this trend doesn’t necessarily mean that the opposition mindset is becoming any less popular in society, the report clarifies.

“The decrease in the number of those who are ready to take to the streets indicates that the protest movement is shifting its energy towards different areas, or even making a ‘tactical’ retreat to reassess its participation and come up with new formats of protests,” the report reads. “Because of the strong reaction from the authorities, it’s getting harder to involve undecided people.”

There is a significant decrease in the participation rate of young protesters. At the same time, adults above the age of 40 are taking to the streets.

It is notable that the nucleus of the protest movement initially consisted of students,” Olga Kryshtanovskaya, one of the authors of the report, said in an interview to Russia Direct before publishing the analysis. “Now we see in our research that the opposition is getting older: Young people are leaving the protest movement and people 40 and older are taking to the streets.”

According to her, the protests resulted from “the hope that [then-President Dmitry] Medvedev gave when he was president.” In contrast, Putin’s current tough stance discourages protesters. 

In this case, the protests will fade out,” she explains. “Many people, not wishing to court disaster for themselves or their children and families, will quietly distance themselves from the protests to avoid risk.”

Evgeny Minchenko, president of the International Institute for Political Expertise, offers another explanation of the decrease in protest activity.

“Young people want feedback, to see some effects from their activity, but because they don’t see it, they become disappointed and give up,” he told Russia Direct. “These young people need drive and action and only those who give it can encourage young people again.”

Young Russians: Looking for action and drive. Photo: Ruslan Sukhusin

Minchenko argues that Russian opposition leader and Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny gives “such action” and, as a result, attracts more and more representatives of Russia’s young opposition. 

Jack Goldstone, U.S. well-known sociologist and professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, believes that although Russians “have indeed been discouraged”, the upcoming mayoral election in Moscow “does provide an opportunity for peaceful change, and people are likely to take advantage of it.”

“The authorities’ decision to free Navalny seems to set the stage for a fair and peaceful election,” he told Russia Direct. “However, having raised the hopes for having such an election, if Navalny is sentenced or otherwise prevented from participating in the election that would likely bring another round of street protests in Moscow.”

“People will shape their action to the possibilities that are available, and in response to the actions of the authorities,” he explains. “If the authorities have foreclosed peaceful avenues for change, people will protest on the streets until the costs of doing so are too great."

Prominent Russian political expert and journalist Georgy Bovt interprets the conclusion of the Kryshtanovskaya report critically. He argues that young Russians have not been too active in taking to the streets to protest.

“What we called the outbreak of the 2011-2012 protest movement is a one-time phenomenon,” he explains. “So far, the young generation shows no significant interest in politics. Regarding the older generation, I wouldn’t exaggerate their political involvement as well. Now there is not enough of a basis to talk about mass protests in Russia, although we witness public indignation for various reasons from time to time.”   

Bovt explains that people switched to their private life after the disappointment in their political potential: They understand that don’t have any impact on politics and refuse to participate in it.

“They don’t believe in their power and withdraw into themselves,” Bovt says. “I would call this a protest – it is ‘gut-level’ indignation.”

Less numerous, but more radical and tougher

At the same time, the Kryshtanovskaya report argues that the opposition is becoming largely professionalized, forming a nucleus that brings together the most vocal and vigorous opponents of the current regime.

Infographic by Natalia Mikhailenko. Source: Kryshtanovskaya Lab

The nucleus of the protest brings together about 8,000-10,000 people who are highly motivated to participate in protests further.

As a matter of fact, almost “all the members of ‘the nucleus of the protest’ have made their choice: Two-thirds have decided to lean only on their moral values” without relying on a leader who could consolidate them, the report says. 

In contrast, Bovt raises questions about the existence of “the nucleus of the opposition.” According to him, it’s impossible to talk about a true nucleus without unity within the opposition and a leader.

“There is no nucleus in the [opposition],” he says. “These people are not united; it’s every man for himself.” 

Though being less united, the opposition is becoming more radicalized, intolerant toward the authorities and too reluctant to offer a compromise. The opposition calls for “civil disobedience” and “a tough confrontation with police,” as well as “the seizure of government bodies,” the report reads.

Minchenko echoes this view, pointing out Navalny’s experience. According to him, Navalny aims at bringing together “a less numerous, but a more radical and fanatic audience.”  

Yet Bovt doesn’t agree. Theoretically, the radicalization of the protests might happen only in certain circumstances – such as a sharp deterioration in the people’s economic prosperity. However, Boft points out that this is hardly likely to be the case.

“In this case, poor people might take to the streets who have nothing to lose,” Bovt said. “Yet, I repeat, the economy is pretty stable and there is no sign of any radicalization. It seems to be another exaggeration.”

Likewise, Goldstone questions the possibility of the radicalization of the opposition.

“I do not think the Russian opposition can be radicalized,” he said. “Russia is an older, not younger country, and older countries prefer peaceful change to radicalization and extremism.  Also, I do not think the Putin regime would engage in massacres of protestors in a major Russian city (which could radicalize the opposition), so a gradual mounting of peaceful protests is more likely than an Egyptian-style rise of religious or political radicals.”

Changing slogans

Since 2012, the opposition has been changing its motto, switching from public frustration with Putin and his government in the post-election period, to indignation about political repression and support for political prisoners.

The slogan – “All officials are thieves and crooks” – is no longer a driving force for protesters. “The opposition needed new calls and accusations,” the report reads. “That’s why the opposition focused on ‘the repressions of the regime’ focusing on the cruelty and injustice of the authorities. Putin and his team were compared with Stalin, while criminal cases against the participants of the May 6 public unrest in 2012 were equated to the 1937 repressions.”

So far, the rallies have been seen as a moral duty. And the July 18 verdict against Alexey Navalny seems to have only increased this trend.

“The main battlefront is related to the world of courts and the law enforcement system in general,” the authors of the report sum up.   

The Kryshtanovskaya report correlates the change in slogans to the decline in the amount of protesters.

“The motto – “Freedom to political refugees!” touched, primarily, friends and relatives of those who faced criminal charges. This slogan failed to get a widespread response from the population. The opposition was losing its supporters.”

Likewise, Bovt sees some correlation between the drop in the number of protesters and the change of the slogans.

“I don’t see mass support of political prisoners,” he said. “There is not any solidarity at all toward them.” 

Will the opposition be a challenge for the authorities? Photo: Ruslan Sukhushin 

Opposition at crossroads

When asked about the major challenges facing the Russian opposition, Bovt said that it’s too far of a gap from the ordinary people to the “nomenklatura” top ranks of the opposition.

“The opposition doesn’t talk to the people with an understandable language,” he explains. “It doesn’t have the platform that would attract an ordinary person. Opposition leaders don’t want to lower themselves to the level of an average man. Yet, going among the people is the only way to earn credibility there.”

According to Goldstone, the West sees the Russian opposition “as small, weak, and disorganized, lacking in leadership and discipline.”

“There is something to this, as the opposition is still regrouping and getting organized after the last round of arrests,” he added. “However, from my point of view the major problem of the Russian opposition is increasing its support outside the major metropolitan areas.”