By Paul Goble
The intensifying debate among Russians as to whether the spread of protests about local concerns will become political or not, with some suggesting that it will and others denying that possibility, reflects a specifically Russian understanding of what is political and what is not.
In most countries, few draw a sharp line between popular protests objecting to public policies or calling of changes in them and politics as the struggle of political parties for power or even efforts to oust the most senior people in the government. But in Russia, most commentators in lockstep with the regime insist on that distinction – and most Russians accept it as well.
The insistence on this distinction by the regime and Moscow commentators and its broad acceptance by the population have the effect of reducing the likelihood public protests will grow and unite into political movement that could threat the powers that be, with protesters often resisting being called “political” and refusing to cooperate even with sympathetic politicians.
What is at least as unfortunate is that many Western observers simply follow this Russian practice, forgetting that they would not discuss politics in their own countries in the same way and thus ignoring the underlying implications of doing so in the Russian case – namely the understatement of the political engagement of the population there.
These reflections are prompted by a series of recent articles that approach the issue in this way or that in one case challenge that assumption. The happy exception is the Petersburg Politics Foundation which argues that the protests now taking place “are already politicized and can intensify” (vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2018/04/04/755762-protesti-regionah).
But more typical are two others. In the first, Nikolay Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, argues that “the intensification of the protest movement still does not mean it is increasingly politicized.” While protests may increase, they will not be political but socio-economic and will remain at the regional level (polit.ru/article/2018/03/27/disaffection/).
And in the second, Nikolay Mironov, head of the Moscow Center for Political and Economic Reform, says that “the political ‘infection’ of protests will not occur even when their participants agree to accept the help of some political party because the people do not believe in the parties” (polit.ru/article/2018/04/05/protests2/).
Despite the similarities in protests in various places, he says, there is no indication of groups linking up to pursue a common agenda. As a result, Mironov insists, the protests are “depoliticized and do not represent a systemic threat for the authorities.” And that is likely to remain the case for a long time to come.
Social protesters are opposed to politicization of their movement both because they do not believe in any of the political parties with whom they might cooperation and they are “afraid to get involved with politics” because they associate it with opposition and any opposition with foreign forces. Indeed, “opposition is viewed as something asocial.”
The systemic parties and especially the KPRF try to get involved but with little or no success, Mironov continues. And the non-systemic parties make even more frequent efforts but have not had any notable success at all. Consequently, the various local protests are unlikely to take a form that would challenge the existing system.
But there is an even more fundamental reason for thinking that the current protests won’t become political, the Moscow analyst says. All current protests are “addressed to the authorities: people appeal to the authorities for help and not to someone against the authorities. And up to now, despite all of its ability to work with protests, the authorities largely control the situation.”
According to Mironov, this means that “the protest will not spread, not be changed and not be politicized. It will instead come and go.” However, there is one thing that the spread of protests will do: “it will create a negative atmosphere in the country,” something that should push the authorities “at a minimum” to improve the work of the state apparatus.
Officials need to learn how to work with the population, Mironov concludes. “Otherwise, protests will grow and at some point, cross a critical line. And as a result, really become politicized.”
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