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Forget Changing The System. Just Don't Build The Church Here: 'Localized' Protesting Poses A New Challenge To The Kremlin

Riot police and protesters facing off in Yekaterinburg on May 14 over plans to build a church in a central park.
Riot police and protesters facing off in Yekaterinburg on May 14 over plans to build a church in a central park.

Eight years ago, it was "Stop Lying," and "Down With The Party Of Crooks And Thieves."

Today, it's "We're For The Square," and "Close The Dump," and "Hands Off Our Pensions."

As President Vladimir Putin closes in on his 20th year as Russia's preeminent leader, the Kremlin has effectively sucked the oxygen out of any viable, independent political opposition. It has neutered civic society and nongovernmental groups through the implementation of "foreign agent" and "undesirable organization" laws. Public demonstrations are broken up as "unauthorized"; crippling fines are imposed on protesters. A new elite police force is tasked with quelling threats to the state.

But rather than crush the spirit of political protests in Russia, protesting is evolving. Demonstrations are focused more on local issues, rather than taking on the system as a whole. They’re unscripted, younger, and more often than not, they don't involve established civil-society groups or political parties.

Four days of raucous demonstrations that erupted earlier this month in Yekaterinburg are the most recent example. Protesters -- who appeared overwhelmingly to be teenagers and young adults -- faced off against riot police over plans to build a church on the site of a popular park in the Urals region city.

Others include protests against a landfill in a remote Arctic region for household garbage from Moscow; a proposed new toll system for long-haul truckers; an increase to the retirement age; and a proposal to swap swaths of farmland between the North Caucasus region of Ingushetia and its neighbor, Chechnya.

These protests have also been more unpredictable, as Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center noted in a recent commentary. For authorities looking to keep a lid on direct challenges, that's problematic.

"What is already clear is that Russia is entering a new period of civil and political activity," Kolesnikov wrote.

The Yekaterinburg protests drew sympathy across the country. Images and footage of people throwing chain-link fences into a nearby pond, and singing and dancing to pop music while facing off with helmeted riot police, were amplified by social media channels like the popular messaging app Telegram.

Many of the protesters in Yekaterinburg were young.
Many of the protesters in Yekaterinburg were young.

​The ire that inspired the chants and slogans weren't directed at the Kremlin or the powerful ruling party United Russia. They were directed at saving the park, or square: "We're For The Square!" Still, the message was heard clearly by the Kremlin; Putin himself weighed in on the issue, an issue that on its face has no real national significance.

"There is huge appetite for political change across the country," Lilia Shvetsova, а veteran Russian political observer, told RFE/RL. "People are tired of the system, tired of the leadership."

But the paradox there, she said, is that there is no force capable of being the catalyst of change.

The Yekaterinburg protests, however, show how demonstrations are becoming more localized and more spontaneous, and are drawing in, she said, a new generation of activists.

"It gives us hope that civil society is not entirely dead," she told RFE/RL.

Change Russia, Start With Yekaterinburg?

In 2011, at the outset of what was effectively Putin's second tour as president -- between 2008 and 2012, when his protégé Dmitry Medvedev was president -- there was an outburst of public unhappiness with both Putin's return, but also the Kremlin-backed, ruling United Russia.

The demonstrations were confined to Moscow, and to a lesser degree, St. Petersburg -- the cities where much of Russia's liberal class and intelligentsia, and ruling elite, are concentrated.

Aleksei Navalny, a lawyer and crusader against government corruption, harnessed that anger and helped spearhead what became known as the Bolotnaya protests. His slogan "Down With The Party Of Crooks And Thieves" was directed at United Russia, and Navalny started building a political party and running candidates in local elections.

Navalny ran in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election under the slogan "Change Russia, Start With Moscow."

In 2012, following Putin's return to the presidency, government authorities moved to tighten restrictions of how civil-society organizations received funding, particularly from foreign sources. Two years later, the government substantially increased fines for people who take part in protests deemed to violate public order rules.

A 2015 law that outright bans nongovernmental organizations "undesirable" or threatening to the Russian state made it harder still on civil-society groups. The following year, the Kremlin moved to carve out a new elite police force known as the National Guard, entrusting it with being the premier agency charged with quelling public disorder.

"There is no real reason for creating the National Guard out of the Interior Troops and other forces unless you have a serious worry about public unrest," Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security agencies, wrote after Putin's reorganization order was published.

Russian truck drivers protest against a new taxation system in St. Petersburg in March 2017.
Russian truck drivers protest against a new taxation system in St. Petersburg in March 2017.

But Russians still found pointed, public ways to make their unhappiness with government initiatives known. Long-haul truckers fought back against a national road toll system. A series of driving protests brought major roads, including in Moscow, to a standstill in what was one of the largest signs of public discontent since 2012.

In 2017, authorities cracked down on the truckers organization, labeling it a "foreign agent."

Bread And Butter

Putin's strong popularity, particularly in the wake of the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, helped propel him to easy reelection in 2018. Among the issues he set out to tackle was the country's looming pension problem.

The Kremlin pushed through deeply unpopular measures to change the Soviet-era system. The result was months of public demonstrations, some organized by official political parties like the Communists.

Navalny also called on mass protests -- and in August, he was jailed preemptively, accused of organizing an unauthorized demonstration in Moscow eight months earlier.

The political potency of local grievances was thrown into even sharper focus last fall, in the North Caucasus, where unemployment is high, memories are long, and ethnic tensions lurk just under the surface. In 1992, Russian authorities carved up what has been the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to create Chechnya and Ingushetia.

But that opened up a Pandora's box of problems as the Chechens and the Ingush squabbled about who had rights to which landsThe Ingush fought a brief war with another neighboring republic, in North Ossetia, in 1992 over a district known as Prigorodny.

Chechen and Ingush lawmakers had tried for years to settle the two regions' shared borders. In October, the Ingush legislature signed off on a deal that outraged Ingush protesters, and brought thousands of people into the streets repeatedly.

The Kremlin tried to quell the discontent by, among other things, turning off Internet service. In March, after a new round of protests, the region's top law-enforcement official resigned -- or was forced to, some experts say -- because he refused to order his troops to disperse the crowds.

In January, groups of demonstrators held protests in the northern region of Arkhangelsk to oppose a plan to bring waste from the Russian capital to a massive new landfill in the remote region. Those protests echoed similar ones held in the Moscow region over a landfill that people said was sickening local children.

And in at least two provincial towns in recent months, protests over proposed cuts to health care providers have helped fuel support for a trade union called the Alliance of Doctors. Ambulance workers in the northern town of Okulkova announced last month they were going on strike to protest low wages. Prosecutors responded by summoning the local head of the Alliance of Doctors for questioning.

Adding further fuel to the fire is a stagnating economy, where real wages have declined for the past several years even as the Kremlin continues to pump money into its rainy-day funds -- now some of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds.

Russian Mega-Dump Prompts Angry Protests
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WATCH: Russian Mega-Dump Prompts Angry Protests

Yekaterina Schulmann, a longtime expert and political scientist at the Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, said she saw no real difference between the effectiveness of the Bolotnaya protests in 2011 and the more recent phenomenon of protests focused on "localized" issues.

"Protesters want their voice to be heard," she told RFE/RL. "It's a basic political demand: wanting participation in the system."

After three days of protests in Yekaterinburg, which drew wide attention particularly in social media and non-national media, Putin weighed in on the issue -- suggesting a public poll should be held whether to build the church in the October Square Park. Local authorities quickly endorsed the idea, and the construction proposal was put on hold.

The Yekaterinburg church protests also reflect this push for participation in the system, Schulmann said.

Andrei Pertsev, a reporter for the Latvia-based Russia-language news site Meduza, said the localized protests were more about symbolism: that demonstrators were angered by their inability to participate in the political process rather than the actual issue at hand.

In other words, it's not about trash from Moscow being dumped in a subarctic forest, and it's not about a church being built in the middle of a city; it's that people felt they didn't have any say in the matter.

"Participants in the protests aren't ready for quite radical actions, they do not retreat under pressure, they take to the streets again and again," he wrote in a commentary published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"The authorities are clearly confused; they're not ready to suppress the protests, they're trying to meet the formal reason for the action, but the underlying causes -- social and political discontent -- aren't going anywhere," he said.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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