MOSCOW - Arrests, the threat of long jail terms and the harassment of political and environmental activists doesn’t appear to be having the desired effect for the Kremlin in deterring anti-government protests, according to a new study.
In the first half of 2019 there were 863 protests and by year’s end the total is likely to be in excess of 2,000 rallies— most of them against the government and law-enforcement agencies or organized to complain about environmental degradation or benefit cuts.
“There are fewer and fewer regions that aren’t reporting protests,” says the study’s author Anna Ochkina of the Moscow-based NGO the Center for Social and Labor Rights.
Only two regions have so far remained largely unaffected this year by a wave of protest activity — Chukotka, a far-flung north-eastern region which is mostly roadless, and Chechnya, which has been in the iron grip since 2005 of Ramzan Kadyrov, whose militias have been accused by rights groups of killings and kidnappings.
The study only looked at the first six months of the year and has not accounted for the mass anti-government rallies that have been unfolding in the Russian capital since July.
Tens of thousands of activists have been holding regular rallies in Moscow to protest rigged city council elections, which have also catalyzed nationwide campaigns in support. So far a handful of the nearly three thousand arrested at Moscow rallies have received jail terms, but nearly two dozen remain in custody and face long prison sentences on charges of mass rioting.
According to the study, protesters are narrowing their focus increasingly on political issues, in contrast to the first quarter of the year when social issues, including retirement-age hikes and benefit cuts and poor public services, were largely the focus.
But political issues are now trending and accounted for 130 of the 434 protests from April to the end of June.
Despite efforts to disrupt protest campaigns — from infiltrating groups with undercover FSB intelligence officers to restricting internet freedom — the Kremlin appears unable to curb the protest wave, the most serious since the so-called Bolotnaya rallies of late 2011 and 2012 in which activists called for Vladimir Putin to step down as Russian President.
One factor that appears to be sustaining the protests is the adept use, mainly by millennials and student activists, of messaging apps like Telegram to organize and inform, provide counsel and offer legal advice to those who have been arrested, according to sociologist Olga Zeveleva.
Writing for the Meduza news-site, she says generational politics and new digital forms of mobilization are shaping the current wave of protest. Some of this was on show during the Bolotnaya rallies but has developed apace since then with online solidarity campaigns sustaining protesters. The human rights project OVD-Info, which first launched in 2011, monitors arrests and fields a Telegram bot that offers legal advice to people who have been arrested.
An independent student magazine DOXA has set up a Telegram chat group, too, to discuss tactics and organize crowd-fund appeals to pay off fines. Students who have been arrested and face disciplinary proceedings by university administrators can also count on help with DOXA organizing open letters of support, she says.
Nonetheless, Zeveleva says “the movement's long-term prospects are unknown, and there's little reason to be optimistic.”
In the face of tough reaction by the Kremlin, the protests could fizzle out, much as they did in 2012, fear activists. On Friday, a court in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don sentenced two young activists, Yan Sidorov, aged 19, and Vladislav Mordasov, aged 24, to more more than six years in a penal colony on charges of attempting to organize mass disturbances.
The pair were arrested outside a local government building in Rostov-on-Don, near Russia’s border with Ukraine, in November 2017. They had been holding up placards calling for Putin to resign. They have been in police custody since their arrests. Amnesty International has dubbed the two prisoners of conscience.
Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty’s deputy director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, says the two were “exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Throwing these human rights activists behind bars is a deplorable move which serves as an indictment of the state of the Russian justice system.
Sentences like those dished out to Sidorov and Mordasov does have an impact, according to a CEO of a major Russian NGO that focuses on early child development for low-income families. She told VOA: “I have protested in the past and so have many of my staff, but I’ve stopped and urged my employees to do the same because the authorities can make life very difficult and could target the NGO.” She asked not to be identified in this article.
Anti-Kremlin activists worry that they are still failing to galvanize the broader middle-class to side with them against the Kremlin, much as they failed to do in 2012. While the Putin narrative that it is either him or political chaos seems not to have the resonance it did during the Bolotnaya wave of anti-Kremlin rallies and before, Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank, says the protests in Moscow and elsewhere reveals a schism in Russia’s middle-class between those who are dependent on state jobs and those whose livelihoods stem from the market economy.
“Education and property—the key attributes of the bourgeoisie—can sway people toward conformism, as well as toward demand for political freedom. Some people think it’s better to keep their head down and adapt to the circumstances, seeing them as the new normal,” he says. “People who depend on the state comprise a growing proportion of the middle class. They can easily be made to attend pro-government rallies designed to counter opposition marches, or be tempted away from undesirable protest events,” he adds.