Russian authorities continue to test the opposition movement’s strength and determination. Earlier this month, a week before the March of Millions, the Duma passed a series of controversial amendments to the law on demonstrations. Several days later, the Investigative Committee of Russia searched the residences of prominent opposition leaders. According to IMR analyst Olga Khvostunova, the Kremlin’s inability to engage in a dialogue with the opposition is what will lead to the further escalation of this conflict.

 

Experts estimate that the adoption of the amendments to the law on demonstrations increased the turnout at the June 12th rally by approximately 30%

 

On June 6th, the State Duma passed amendments to the Code of Administrative Offences and the Federal Law on Assemblies, Rallies, Demonstrations, Marches and Picketing with record speed for Russia. Indubitably, the new laws were aimed at the June 12th opposition rally, called the Second March of Millions. The Kremlin was eager to use new laws to penalize protesters.

As it often happens when expediency is valued over responsible action, some of the changes to the law were downright absurd. For instance, common citizens (such as soccer fans) are subject to a 300 ruble (approximately $10 USD) fine for obstructing traffic; meanwhile, a group of protesters chanting “Russia Without Putin!” can be fined 50,000 rubles (about $1600) for the same offense. A person organizing an unsanctioned protest can be fined 100,000 rubles (about $3200). If any property is damaged during such a protest, for example, a window is broken, the fine increases to an amount of up to 300,000 rubles (about $9600).

Another example of the egregious nature of these amendments is the clause requiring that municipal authorities be officially notified of any non-public event that involves “a mass assembly and/or movement of citizens in public places.”  Because the law does not define “mass” in terms of numbers, law enforcement  can interpret this clause at their discretion.

Already, authorities have taken advantage of this vague language. On June 12th, three residents of the central Russian city of Kemerovo were detained and later summoned to appear in court for “organizing an unsanctioned rally.” The trio had been walking down the street bearing white ribbons and balloons in support of the rally in Moscow.

Then there were the raids on opposition leaders’ residences that took place a day before the protests. On June 11th, Investigative Committee (IC) officials searched the apartments of Alexey Navalny, Sergey Udaltsov, Boris Nemtsov, Ilya Yashin, and Ksenia Sobchak. The search warrants had been issued on the grounds that all of them had witnessed the confrontations between police and protesters at the May 6th demonstration. Authorities confiscated electronic devices, documents, and money. In addition, the opposition leaders were summoned to appear at interrogations scheduled to begin an hour before the following day’s rally. As a result, none of them made it to the rally.

 

Opposition leaders Ksenia Sobchak and Ilya Yashin were summoned for interrogations at the Investigation Committee headquarters on June 12th, the same day as the second March of Millions

 

This chain of events becomes even more complicated with the latest scandal involving the deputy editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta Sergei Sokolov and IC head Aleksandr Bastrykin. The incident was triggered by an article in which Sokolov harshly criticized the IC’s handling of the Kushchevskaya massacre. According to the journalist, after the article's publication, he was called in for a personal meeting with Bastrykin who wanted to “clarify some details.” This meeting went poorly; Sokolov was yelled at and kicked out. Afterwards, IC guards drove him to the forest where Bastrykin spoke with him again, this time, screaming and threatening his life. In response to these horrific actions, Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov printed an open letter to Bastrykin, demanding a public apology. Muratov rallied the support of many journalists, some of whom proceeded to picket outside of the IC building in Moscow. Eventually, Bastrykin buckled under this pressure and apologized for his “emotional outburst,” although he never acknowledged that the incident in the forest took place.

 

Under public pressure, head of the Investigation Committee Aleksander Bastrykin (Left) offered his official apologies to Novaya Gazeta's journalist Sergei Sokolov (Right)

 

Analysts agree  that the opposition movement is only gaining steam. The discontent fomenting over the course of the past six months has not been dampened by Putin’s victory, the police brutality during the May protests, nor by the amendments to the law on demonstrations. The active segment of civil society refuses to be intimidated or deceived.

Nonetheless, the opposition movement has yet to develop a solid political platform. Its role in the political process remains minimal due to the fact that Russian politics tend to function independently of civil society and its interests. Maria Lipman, Editor-in-Chief of Pro et Contra, commented that, “It was naïve to think that if tens of thousands people went into the street and started chanting “Russia Without Putin!” it would make him disappear. This movement is not very influential in terms of direct political impact. <…> The elite, at least in the public sphere, remain loyal [to the Kremlin], institutions are still under state control <…> The judiciary doesn’t fail to support the Kremlin, either. So far, the opposition has posed no direct political threat to the state. Nonetheless, [the emergence of the protest movement] is very important.”

Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center named three types of protesters involved in the movement. The first category makes social and economic demands, calling the state to raise the standard of living and provide greater social security. The second category seeks political reforms, such as true competition in the political arena, pluralism, and the division of powers among the branches of government. The third category, in Ryabov’s words, advocates for human dignity, and is the one that initiated the process that he calls 'civil emancipation'. “They avoid political and ideological identification in principle, but stand for everything else. They are probably the reason the protest movement cannot come up with a common political program, or endorse a single leader.”

The opposition's lack of a common political platform seriously weakens its influence and ability to complete with the regime. Some analysts, such as Stanislav Belkovsky, believe that the problem is rooted in the opposition leaders, who, in their opinion, use protest activities for self-promotion and whose egos keep them from reaching a consensus among themselves. In contrast, other analysts, including Andrey Piontkovsky, believe that the foundations for a unified platform are already in place and can be found in the Free Russia Manifesto, which was signed in by all major opposition leaders.

As for average Russian citizens, Pew Center polls published this May reflect a conflicted populace. Seventy-two percent have a favorable opinion of Vladimir Putin; 56% are satisfied with the way the recent presidential election was run; 57% think that a strong leader is more important than democracy; only 32% disagree entirely. It’s worth nothing that in 1991, the ratio was 39% to 51% in favor of democracy. Seventy-five percent of Russians today believe that a strong economy is more important than democracy (19% believe the opposite). At the same time, 64% of respondents said that the current economic conditions were bad. It is possible that Russians have not yet connected the country’s economic problems with its “strong leader.” Andrey Piontkovsky predicted this changing in the coming autumn when utilities prices will be raised, which could finally push the protest movement into the provinces.

 

Despite mass protests in major Russian cities, 72% of the Russian population still has a favorable opinion of Vladimir Putin

 

Overall, recent developments are signs of the authorities' irritation with the continuing demonstrations. The Kremlin doesn't seem to understand why the unspoken accord that has existed for years, entailing the implicit exchange of political liberties for economic stability, has suddenly begun to disintegrate. Of course, this regime has always had its enemies, but up until now, they were few and could be neutralized or put down with directed measures. In the past, the public had been largely silent.

Originally, the authorities supposed that the protests had been brought about by the rampant voter fraud that took place during the December 2011 parliamentary elections. They figured that after Putin's victory in the presidential election, even the most radical opposition leaders wouldn’t be able to help but admit that the President had the support of the (narrow) majority. But the tide of protests has refused to ebb. On top of that, it has brought about yet more political failures on the part of the regime following the rallies at Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue.

The impending split in the Kremlin is aggravated by the fact that neither Putin nor the majority of the elite see the opposition as a force to truly engage with. They continue to function in the construct of a system that includes elements of two different political cultures. On one side, the so-called "corporatism of the chekhists," a coalition among the career Kremlin strongmen, and on the other side, the oligarchy, representing the more liberal faction of the elite that is more tolerant to opposition. The ruling class has realized that a hostile mass has emerged, eroding the system and threatening its prosperity. Instead of looking for opportunities to create a dialogue, authorities will continue to mechanically assess the risks, develop counter-measures, and attempt to use directed repressive measures in order to gain traction over the movement and reduce the threat it poses.

This autumn, the future path of the Russian political system will be revealed following the first regional parliamentary elections to include opposition candidates. The next March of Millions, tentatively scheduled for September 15th, will also be telling. As Andrei Ryabov wrote, when there is a stand-off instead of a dialogue, “violence inevitably comes to drive the political process, and the violence reproduces itself as each side uses it as the only available means for expressing its will.” In the worst-case scenario, this violence could lead to a serious social rupture—and the inevitable casualties.

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