Staunton, May 15 – A new study of protests in Russia finds that the long haul truckers’ strike has often attracted the most support in regions where participation in Duma elections was least, an indication that an increasing share of Russians see the systemic parties as not representing their interests and what should be a warning sign to the Kremlin.
After all, Forbes commentator Aleksey Firsov says today, groups with “local” agendas, as many protests in Russia are still dismissed, can grow into something more: “the February (1917) revolution, for example, began with a purely local event” (forbes.ru/biznes/344303-rasserzhennye-gorozhane-kak-lokalnye-konflikty-menyayut-obshchestvo).
Firsov draws his conclusions on the basis of a new study by the Platform Center for Social Prediction, a research effort that focused not only on the truckers strike but also on the conflicts in St. Petersburg over the fate of St. Isaacs Cathedral, the khrushchoby in Moscow, and protests elsewhere in Russia over a variety of other issues.
The fact that many of these protests involve specifically “local” issues is often the basis for dismissing them as marginal or unimportant, he says. But “precisely at the local level are touched most directly the vital interests of people and into the streets go not the opposition but the population in the broad sense of the word.”
And because of that, “the main risk is that the consciousness of these people will become mobile and pass out of control” of either officials or opposition leaders. That is what happened a century ago, and it can certainly happen again, Firsov says.
The Platform study reached that conclusion because it found that “in practically all zones of heightened societal volatility, the percent of participation in elections was extremely low.” People in these regions clearly have concluded that the government and the systemic parties are out of touch with their needs and interests.
Many Russian commentators assume that Moscow, Petersburg and Moscow oblast “have the greatest potential for the reduction of tension by means of social investment, political resources, and controlled media instruments. However,” the Forbes writer, says, “the picture turns out to be exactly the opposite.”
There are both objective and subjective reasons for this, he continues. Officials at the regional level often are “quite distant” from the milieu of their regions. This is not just because they come from outside but because they are insulated from the population by Moscow’s concerns and by a local media which is controlled and tells them only what they want to hear.
Such leaders are thus not in a position to respond in an adequate fashion to the realities around them. They are deprived of the possibility of “public polemics” and the kind of information and argument that might allow them to adopt more reasonable decisions, albeit ones that reflecting local interests might put them at odds with Moscow.
The Platform study found, Firsov continues, that “representatives of the powers that be sincerely believe that the image [they have of their surroundings] is perfectly adequate” because the powers and the media simply echo one another, but that closed system is increasingly ceasing to work effectively.
It inevitably tends to deprive those who oppose the powers of their standing, makes dialogue with them impossible, and leaves each side “nothing except to escalate the situation” either by repression on the one hand or mass protests on the other.
Under Russian conditions, Firsov points out, there is always “a third component” – Moscow. Both sides in these disputes look to the center as an arbiter. Sometimes the center gives clear signals, but often it doesn’t. And in that event, each side in “local” conflicts has to make a guess as to what is possible.
“The external passivity of the center,” he writes, “is not always a manifestation of a lack of decisiveness: behind it may stand the practice of administering conflicts which allows for the testing and controlling of the regional powers that be.” Moreover, “such conflicts give it the chance to keep dissatisfaction at the local level” rather than having it spread more widely.
But participants in “local” protests, be they the long-haul truckers or anyone else, are changed by that experience, Firsov says. They cease to view themselves as the subjects of policy either regional or central but as actors who should have a say. That will change the system or possibly lead to its demise.
The Russian media today featured two other significant reports about the long-haul truckers’ strike. In the first, news outlets in Chita report that the long-haul truckers of the Transbaikal formed their own section of the Russian Carriers Union and elected its leadership (chita.ru/news/101622/).
And in the second, the online newspaper Yakutia provided additional details on the First Congress of Long-Haul Truckers of Sakha which took place just over a week ago. The Internet paper made it clear that despite the efforts of officials, driver anger at the Plato system was at the center of the congress sessions (gazetayakutia.ru/kilometry-problem/).
But perhaps even more important than the drivers’ opposition to the Plato fee system – the name “Plato” comes from a combination of the Russian words “pay per ton” – was the fact that the drivers in Sakha insisted that the Moscow rule completely ignored the conditions under which they must operate, thus adding another regional dimension to their protest.