Wednesday, March 29, 2017

All Russia is Now One Big Hot Spot, Regional Affairs Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 29 – Natalya Zubarevich, perhaps Russia’s most prominent specialist on developments in the regions beyond the ring road, says that today “there are no places where the situation is “especially critical” because as the wave of protests shows, it has become “critical” everywhere from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad.

            As is almost invariably the case, most Russian and Western reportage has focused on Sunday’s demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg. But what makes the current wave of protests new and important, the director of the Independent Institute for Social Policy says, is that protests took place across the country (

                (To get some idea of just how widespread the demonstrations were, how many people turned out in various places and how many of the protesters were detained, see the extremely useful interactive map at

            Zubarevich argues that the protests outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg are important not only because they show the extent to which the arguments opposition figures are making in the capitals resonate but also because they underscore the entrance into political activity of new and sometimes very different forces, a trend that challenges officials at all levels.

            “Both Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg, where many people participated in the protests, are macro-regional centers with a modernized population that wants the authorities to take their interests into account,” the regional specialist says. They have always been leaders in such protests.

            But the situation in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan in the North Caucasus, is very different.  Although it has nearly a million residents if one counts its suburbs, Makhachkala is hardly “a major macro-regional center” or a place with a long history of participating in Moscow-led protests.

            “The special quality of that city is many interest groups operate there,” including ethnic and religious ones; but they share one thing in common with other Sunday demonstrators: “Over the last several years, with the arrival of Ramazan Abdulatipov, dialogue between the powers and the population has collapsed,” with the former preferring to use force to settle all issues.

            Consequently, Zubarevich continues, “if Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg are simply advanced centers which follow Moscow and Petersburg, Makhachkala is a painful point where alternative points of view have been maintained, and the level of pressure is higher than the average elsewhere in Russia.”

            “The estrangement of the powers that be from the population has reached unthinkable dimensions,” she says; and “the struggle with corruption has simply become a suitable euphemism” for a much larger set of problems.

            Two other cities at opposite ends of the Russian Federation – Vladivostok and Kaliningrad – highlight other aspects of these phenomena.  In Vladivostok, the specialist says, people have greater contact with the outside world and are thus more inclined to develop critical views about the regime.

            Kaliningrad, which one might have expected to display a similar trend, hasn’t, Zubarevich says.  There, people didn’t protest; and that pattern allows for the following conclusion: “Participation in protests in Vladivostok is good news, but non-participation in Kaliningrad is bad.”

            “It is possible,” she says, “that the passivity of the Kaliningraders is connected with the fact that in 2011-2012, they took an active part in protests” and then the authorities responded in a better way: they paid more attention to local needs, they maintained a dialogue, and that reduced political activism by the population.

            All these means that now, “we are in a very interesting situation: one cannot localize these problems: they are everywhere.”  This is “the first time in Russian history” that there have been so many protests in so many places about many of the same issues all on the same day, the Moscow regional specialist says.

            According to Zubareivch, this is not a reflection of “the good work of Navalny.”  In many places, such as Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, he and his supporters not that popular. Simply the process has matured, and the time has come. People have told the powers that be: ‘it isn’t necessary to live on Mars.’”

            The current crisis began in 2013 and has only gained speed and size, more slowly where the authorities have responded with dialogue and more rapidly where they haven’t. (For an example of this, see how Kazan’s ban on protests there backfired and made the situation even more tense ( 

            From many points of view, the economic and social decline of the last four years has been even worse in the regions than in the capital: “On the periphery, people more often get involved in informal activity because there are no social guarantees and one can lose work at any moment. All this doesn’t contribute to optimism” about the future.

            But now, Zubarevich says, no one can avoid concluding that “this is a federal problem: the participation of local officials only slows the decline in some places but more commonly accelerates it.” And that crates “a very interesting situation: it is impossible to localize the problems: they are everywhere.”

            Moreover, as Sunday’s numerous demonstrations outside of Moscow show, “in regional centers this crisis is felt no less than on the periphery. This too distinguishes the current crisis from all preceding ones.”

            Zubarevich does not discuss this, but geography also helped the Navalny protests in another way: The successful demonstrations in the Russian Far East hours before they were to begin in Moscow encouraged people in the capitals to come out, something that will only intensify if there are more such demos in the future (

‘Living without Love’ – Russians Neither Like nor Respect Kremlin Anymore, Shelin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 29 – Despite all the claims about the 86 percent of Russians who support Vladimir Putin, Sergey Shelin says, the Kremlin has now “found out that the masses do not like or respect the authorities, and the latter are now faced with the task of finding a way to do without the one or the other.

            Sunday’s protests sent a message to the Putin elite that “not only the intelligentsia but the broad strata of its subjects in all parts of the country have lost respect for it,” the Rosbalt commentator says. That won’t lead to resignation but rather to considering how to “live without love” from now on (

            The experience of Poland between 1956 when Warsaw moved toward great autonomy from Moscow and 1989 when the communist regime collapsed is instructive, Shelin suggests.  Over the course of that period, he points out, Warsaw’s “relations with its people passed through several stages.” Russia’s elite may now pass through some of the same.

            At first, “the Polish regime had the visage of an advanced, liberal and popular one.” Intellectuals were inspired, and the government even allowed opposition figures in the parliament. Then, as clashes within the elite intensified, the state cracked down on youth marches, destroyed the opposition, and launched a xenophobic campaign.

            That was sufficient to destroy the intellectuals as a political force, but then “a little later, the regime clashed with a new opposition, the workers.” To quiet them, Warsaw borrowed money furiously, but when the funds ran out and things got worse, “the worker oppositionists and the intellectual oppositionists joined forces to fight injustice, unfreedom and corruption.”

            That forced Warsaw to do away with ceremony and “introduce military rule,” Shelin points out. “For a certain time, the people were suppressed but that eventually ceased to work. The bankruptcy of the old regime became complete and generally recognized.” And the old regime had to hand over power to a new one.

            In Russia today, the Rosbalt commentator says, “the authoritarian and systemically corrupt regime even knowing that the people view it as it is, can survive for quite a long time by operating in part by using repression and in part by providing material improvements.”

            To be effective in this, however, the regime must avoid limiting its options by any ideological constraints.  “Love and respect for it have been lost without any chance of return, but before our power material remains something like a corridor of loyalty within which it can maneuver.”

            But any violation of the limits of that corridor, even on secondary issues, can provoke an outburst of protests “of unpredictable size,” Shelin says, citing the Persian proverb that “it isn’t so important where a rock falls into a pond because regardless of where that is, circles of waves will spread out from it.” That is clearly where Russia is now.

            The Kremlin’s use of the Russian Orthodox Church as “the highest organ of ideological supervision and control,” its promotion of “archaic values in schools and universities,” is support of “paranoid” propaganda is likely to continue because “it is difficult to imagine even the partial turning away from this.”

            “For the promotion of the archaic and bans has been put in place a powerful infrastructure” which enjoys the support of the Kremlin, Shelin says, and the Kremlin and its allies know only how to tighten the screws rather than to loosen them. But perhaps looking at what happened in Belarus with the vagrants tax, Moscow will avoid some steps in that direction.

            “However,” Shelin says, in this area, “there are no limits to inventiveness;” and there will be those who will suggest various ways of tightening the screws because that is what they have always done and what has always worked in the past.

            According to the commentator, “the Putin system” faced opposition only from the intelligentsia five years ago.  Now, it faces “an all-people” one: “Two wars, the fight with the West, the exchange of sanctions” have all had their effect.” And any “political dividends from this have been lo

            That means that the Putin regime must make choices about what to do “in conditions significantly less favorable for it” than was the case in 2012.  According to Shelin, there are three “variants” it can choose among.

            First, it can try “another spectacle of the renaissance of great powerness” by launching another attack.  But this is “very expensive, very risky and not very likely to work.”  However, he says, “it cannot be excluded.”

            Second, it can try to promote growth by tightening the belts of Russians still further. But it is unclear how Russians will react to a program that will lead to the further impoverishment of most of them – and the further unprecedented concentration of corrupt wealth at the top.

            Or third – and Shelin says this is “the most realistic” – those in power can finally understand that “the best days of the regime are behind them and to maintain themselves by acting only within the corridor of today’s possibilities,” that is, to pursue “a policy of stagnation.”

            “Love has gone and will not return,” the Rosbalt commentator says, “but the final phase of the existence of our current system only in that case can turn out to be quite long indeed.”

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

‘Why Do Russians Protest Against Corruption but Not Against War?’ Portnikov Asks

Paul Goble

Staunton, March 28 – “If Russians really want change,” Vitaly Portnikov says, they need to focus not on the secondary issue of corruption but on the authoritarianism and aggressiveness of Vladimir Putin. But Aleksey Navalny won’t lead that charge because he supported Putin in 2008 on Georgia and the Kremlin leader’s Anschluss of Crimea in 2014.

Of even greater concern, the Ukrainian commentator says, is the fact that Navalny in his demonstrations against corruption has focused on the actions of Dmitry Medvedev rather than on “the leader of Russian corruption, President Vladimir Putin” (

“The paradox in this is htat a large section of its participants – representatives of the so-called ‘creative class’ of Moscow – only a few years ago saw in Medvdev hopes for the liberalization of the regime” and viewed Putin’s return to the office of president “as the most real political catastrophe.”

“Had Medvedev remained chief of state,” Portnikov continues, “many Muscovites despite the complete lack of signs of liberalization and the recent war in Georgia would have been delighted. And the corrupt nature of Medvedev” wouldn’t have bothered them at all given his supposed policy preferences.

Given that, the current demonstrations which “convert Medvedev into the main target of ‘the anti-corruption struggle’ prepare the ground for the seizure by Putin’s siloviki of complete control over the government and financial flows.”

“I will not assert,” Portnikov says, “that now Putin doesn’t control the government. He does. But he doesn’t completely control all financial flows, and this means that the Russian president simply cannot take all means for the realization of his own plans, among which it is completely possible a major war.”

Now, focusing on corruption and especially corruption at the level of Medvedev rather than Putin as if these were the most important thing is a distraction. But the problem here is an even deeper one, the Ukrainian analyst says.

Portnikov argues that he wouldn’t “accuse Russians of political schizophrenia” on that basis alone given that Ukrainians too have suffered from some of the same attitudes and sought to avoid mass actions even when they faced the illegal formation of a government and other violations before the Maidan.

 “The first real mass action in Kyiv and other cities of the country began only after the government’s refusal to follow the course of European integration which the powers themselves had so enthusiastically promoted,” Portnikov says. “But even the participants of this action explained that they did not want confrontation with the powers that be.”

But then “the Yanukovich regime committed a fatal mistake – fatal for itself but a salvation for the country – by deciding not to sign the agreement [with Europe] and to disperse by force the students. Political schizophrenia [in Ukraine] ended with that, and the Maidan began, a genuine Maidan.”

What is taking place in Russia and “by the way, in Belarus” is exactly what occurred in Ukraine “before the real Maidan.”  What will happen next, Portnikov says, “xdepends on how the Russian authorities conduct themselves and how Russian society does as well.”

For a real protest to take off, he suggests, the authorities will have to ask with “unmotivated cruelty” and “ignore any demands of the citizens;” and “these citizens will then have the support of millions of their compatriots who are ready to go into the street and defend those arrested and beaten.”

The Russian powers that be have “always acted with unjustified cruelty.” Dispersing a student demonstration is nothing, but what is striking so far is that no one sees “the millions of compatriots” ready to come out in their support. “But for a real protest, for the collapse of the regime, these millions are required, just as they were required in Kyiv.”

Thus, “the student protest in November 2013 led to a real Maidan and to the overthrow of the regime of the enemy of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich, but the walk along Tverskaya in March 2017 remains a show of force of the Muscovite intelligentsia which even during