The Russian government has been acting pretty strange despite Putin’s supposedly high approval ratings. The prosecutor general’s office has put forth a decree to block websites promoting “large scale civil unrest” with five days of being reported. On Saturday, a small, almost entirely silent group of protesters supporting the Russian constitution (on constitution day, no less) were trailed by police, with numerous people being dragged away into waiting buses. Razor wire was added to the fences surrounding the TV center at Ostankino, and military parade rehearsals were announced, curiously coinciding with the protests of independent truckers against the Platon fee system. Meanwhile, even more repressive laws are being talked about, while Putin’s guard service runs around the country playing fire brigade to nip unrest in the bud before it starts.
What exactly are Putin and his cronies afraid of? Russia’s opposition has never been terribly popular, and they are often better at articulating what they are against rather than what they are for. Even many groups who do protest are always quick to declare their undying loyalty to the president, in spite of his obvious responsibility for the system being the way it is. Why is it that the government acts as though the country is about to go from zero to Maidan? There are several factors to consider, and combinations are possible.
First, the idea that there needs to be some large, well-organized opposition to start a revolution is a misnomer. I could use the example of the Bolshevik, but I’m not because although it was a small organization which achieved major results, it did so because of its peculiar, theoretically grounded organizational methods and discipline. I simply don’t see such a group in Russia today. The Bolsheviks were also pushing for a very different kind of revolution, a real revolution overthrowing a social order and a mode of production as opposed to merely replacing a government. But even if we exclude the Bolsheviks, small groups of people can become a catalyst for change without being extremely popular.
Personally I don’t see any mass upheaval in the near future (barring catastrophic economic events), if only because many of the things people still protest in Russia these days tend to be limited in scope. Capitalist Russia is a highly atomized society, so what happens to teachers in Siberia, long-range truckers, or the mothers of soldiers who died in mysterious training accidents is likely to go unnoticed by many people. This is the beauty of Putin’s system. Everyone keeps their heads down and hopes that the worst won’t happen to them.
What will bring people out into the streets has to be generalized suffering. When food prices skyrocket and people’s grandparents are freezing to death in a country so rich in natural gas, the “blame the West” rhetoric isn’t going to be so effective. Note that I didn’t suggest it won’t be effective at all. There will still be plenty of people who think they just need to “endure” a little more in order to defeat the imaginary Western onslaught, but their numbers will dwindle.
Another factor to consider is that many of these measures we see may have been taken on the personal initiative of underlings in the government. Putin isn’t particularly decisive. He doesn’t hand down direct orders to each and every bureaucrat. Instead, these people take it on themselves to be proactive and show what great team players they are. As such, they often overcompensate, but this also benefits Putin because if some measure proves too unpopular, he or his press secretary Peskov can criticize the idea and try to play the moderate again.
There is one wildcard I can think of, and that would involve Russia’s “opposition” parties actually opposing Putin and his party. Obviously Putin’s cronies will start cracking down on them, but a party like KPRF can put a lot of people out in the streets. What is more, a crack down on official parties will basically kill one of the illusions of Putin’s state, namely that it is a multi-party democracy.
Lastly, there is a possibility that the authorities aren’t overreacting. They are privy to information the rest of us don’t see, and they may be able to see serious stormclouds on the horizon, if not a credible opposition movement ready to rise up. I suspect this is what Putin saw when he started to tighten the screws after 2012. If people were protesting during what were essentially good times, what would they do when those storm clouds arrived? Massive capital flight started in Russia before the annexation of the Crimea. Oil prices probably would have taken a nose dive either way.
Is 2016 the year? Personally I doubt it. There are still too many people with the mentality that it is better to live in shit than letting the Americans “win.” Still, unexpected things can happen and speed up the timetable. Look how little time it took for Putin’s gambit in Syria to go off the rails. This may end up being another year of wait and see.