Protests in Russia Show How the Political Environment Has Changed

Nikolai Petrov speaks to Jason Naselli about a new wave of protests against Vladimir Putin’s government and what it means for the future of the Russian system.

Expert comment Published 16 August 2019 Updated 3 September 2019 3 minute READ

Jason Naselli

Former Senior Digital Editor

Protesters at a rally in central Moscow on 10 August. Photo: Getty Images.

Protesters at a rally in central Moscow on 10 August. Photo: Getty Images.

The disqualification of opposition candidates ahead of an election to Moscow’s city duma on 8 September have spurred the largest protests seen in the city since 2011–12. Increasing waves of mass protests reached around 50,000 participants on 10 August, and there is no sign of them stopping. Nikolai Petrov explains the implications of these protests and the Kremlin’s response.

Why have these protests emerged now?

Since the announcement of pensions reform last year [when the government raised the retirement age without public discussion or explanation, to widespread outcry], there has been huge disappointment with the government in general and Putin in particular, which has led to a decline in Putin’s approval ratings.

This has created a new political environment, and against this background, any local reason can serve as a straw breaking a camel’s back, a trigger for serious unrest. There have been several cases like this in the Moscow region connected with the problem of rubbish collection, in the Arkhangelsk region over the storage of rubbish from Moscow, and in Yekaterinburg connected with constructing a cathedral in a local park.

Now it has come to Moscow and the trigger was the campaign for the Moscow city duma elections. It is important to understand that the city duma does not have any real power, so these protests are really about the relationship between society and the government.

The political machine which Putin has built and which has worked in the past has not taken into account this new relationship. So it made a mistake.

In order to be registered as a candidate for the city duma, you need to gather around 5,000 signatures, which is a fairly significant number, especially in the summer when people are on holiday. This was designed in order to prevent unwanted candidates from participating in the elections.

But this time it worked against them, because opposition candidates were very active and managed to gather enough signatures, while the government’s candidates – which had already dropped the affiliation with the increasingly unpopular ruling party, United Russia – mostly did not gather signatures at all. This is fairly clear for local people to see; Moscow is divided into 45 constituencies, so you can see who is canvassing in your neighbourhood and who is not.

When the electoral commission decided to invalidate many of the opposition’s signatures to prevent them from registering as candidates, this set off the anger of people who had already been politically mobilized to participate in the election.

The general attitude in Moscow is in favour of the protestors. A new poll shows that more approve than disapprove of the protests and that nearly 1 in 10 would consider participating.

Who are the type of people who are protesting?

It’s interesting – in many cases the way that you describe events means more than what has happened. The government is trying to describe participants as those who are not Muscovites, who have been brought there from outside. But in fact, there are many young Muscovites there, which is important to note, because while these protests have reached the scale of 2011–12, those who are participating today are younger and are different from those who participated almost 10 years ago.

This means there is a new generation of protestors – but not just young people. At the numbers we are seeing, it is a good spread of average Muscovites who are involved.

And to you, the key moment that has led to this was the furore over the pensions reform last year.

Yes, absolutely.

In 2011, there was general disappointment about Putin’s announcement that he would try to move back into the presidency, and elections in December 2011 served the role of a trigger for the protests that followed. What went wrong for the authorities in 2011 was the fact that thousands of Muscovites were election observers and were confronted first hand by cheating and negligence.

This time is similar, in that there were thousands of Muscovites gathering and giving signatures who now feel personally humiliated by the actions of the government.

How does this situation play out in the run-up to the elections on 8 September and beyond?

If it’s right to say that this is not about the Moscow city duma elections but is a more important trend, then 8 September will not be the end of the story. To say nothing of the fact that in September, there will be elections in almost half of Russia’s regions, including 16 gubernatorial elections. Moscow was not considered to be the most important battlefield – the city duma does not play any real role. In St Petersburg, there is a gubernatorial election that is much more important.

I think the biggest problem is that the government did not learn lessons from its failures in elections last year. In 2018, for the first time under Putin, Kremlin-backed candidates failed in several regions. This should have pushed the Kremlin into changing their attitude towards elections. This didn’t happen, and what is going on now in Moscow is just one sign of this. We will see many more serious problems in other regions, as government losses on 8 September have the potential to create again a new political atmosphere. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is blaming the West.

This is not about any particular politicians coming to power. This is about the government failing to keep its system afloat. It could be similar to a certain extent to the recent Ukrainian presidential elections, where somebody from outside could come and change the political system, step by step. And the Kremlin, being aware of this, is tightening the screws.