From Hope to Despair: what is the difference between the 2011 and 2017 protests?

Six years ago, ’the multipolarity’ of the opposition pushed the government to make concessions. Today, however, protests are monopolized and the chance of achieving any concessions is minimal.

Lately, many experts have been trying to analyze the differences between these two waves of protests: the “Summer” one, which is currently happening, and the “Winter” one, which occurred less than five years ago I would like to focus on the basic difference between the two, which defines all other though less significant features.

The Protest of Hope

The events of 2011 were ‘a protest of hope,’ anger which arose under conditions when positive trends were sharply being replaced by the reverse. This anger had a political quality, a clearly recognized cause and object, and didn’t depend on the economic situation.

In 2011, Russia’s economic growth was 4.3 percent. The average pay had reached a record $800 per month, according the exchange rate at the time.   It was during the time of Russia’s ‘reset’ with the West. On this background, Vladimir Putin’s decision to become president again and the obvious violations in the Duma elections drew thousands of people and the leaders of all opposition forces into the streets. The slogans were clear: the power here is ‘we’ and we don’t want Putin anymore. Everyone who disagreed with the regime was united on that. New symbols (white ribbons), the structures, and new meanings emerged.

These protests were hardly unique. This was exactly what the first Maidan (First Ukrainian Revolution) looked like. In 2004, Ukraine’s economic growth was 12.1 percent, but electoral fraud caused the ‘Orange Revolution,’ which happened to be unstoppable. Ten years later, in 2013, the average salary grew by 20 percent annually, reaching a record $440 per month, but when the government rejected the Euro-integration plans (no matter how illusionary they were) brought hundreds of thousands of people out to the streets and resulted in the ‘Revolution of Dignity.’  When a dream arises with people and it seems that they can achieve something, protest movements can be quite effective.

The Protest of Despair 

Against this background, the anger of 2017 has been looking like a ‘protest of despair’: there were no chances for changing the direction of the movement, nor were there broad forces, which would want it. People paid for the symbolic price of Crimea with the economic crisis. The recession has continued for two years in a row; the average salary has dropped to $600 per month. Relations with the West have deteriorated to the lowest point, and society is inebriated with the delirium of war. Just a bit more than a half a year ago at the parliamentary elections our citizens phenomenally unanimously voted for the ‘party of power’. And suddenly, out of the blue the opposition calls people to fight against corruption. The message appears servile: we understand that you (the Kremlin leadership) are here for good, you can keep on fighting in Syria and Donbas, all what we are begging for is to restrain the kleptocrats Medvedev and Chaika. Such protests have erupted quite frequently and in many places, and the government traditionally addressed the issue with demagogy and money. Just look at the case of protests against the so called “renovation’ in Moscow (the project of tearing down shabby five-story apartment blocks, built in the 1960s), which almost took place. The powers that be can make a few promises to make concessions and that has turned out to be “sufficient” for the protests to fade away to nothing.

‘Protests of despair’ can be very effective in societies with well-developed horizontal structures: political parties, trade unions, and broad public movements.  In this case, the opposition has tools to exert pressure on the government to address the issues, which are essentially of economic nature. In an unstructured society with a low level of solidarity, the chances for success are quite slim.

But this is only one of the distinctions between the demonstrations of 2011 and those of the present day.

The Monopolization of Protest

The first distinction is about the way the protests were organized. The 2011-2012 protests were self-organized, while the opposition leaders had only helped structure the movement. By coming up to the stage of the rallies, opposition leaders have inspired the hope of unity. Duma legislators, leaders of official parties, dozens of cultural celebrities, and even billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov have shown up at these rallies.

But today, the protest movement to a large degree has been the result of Alexei Navalny and his comrades’ activities. In essence, this is a one-man play and is considered as such by the majority of participants of earlier protests.  This trend doesn’t provide the protestors with a chance of being heard.  At the times of any of the so-called “color revolutions,” bitter enemies would forget about their rivalries: just look who was the head of the marches at the Rustavely Avenue (Tbilisi) in 2003, who joined the Maidan protests of 2004 and 2014, and who came up to the stage of rallies at Bolotnaya and Sakharov squares (Moscow).

This year’s protests were based on totally different guidelines.  First of all, they were guided by a simple slogan, and not by an action program. Secondly, they were focused on the charisma and the cult of a leader comparable to that of the current president.  Thirdly, there was willingness to compromise (e.g. on the issues of Crimea and Ukraine) for the sake of popularity. I am not going to argue about the efficiency of this tactic, but would like to stress how strikingly different it is from the previous one.

The Composition of Those Taking Part

There has been much ado about the unexpectedly high level of involvement of young people and teenagers in the recent protests.  I believe this can be easily explained by economic factors. The crisis has badly hurt nation’s well-being, and as a result many people were forced to be frugal, giving up on things which used to be customary until just recently. Debates of new survival strategies in families resounded in the minds of young people, who spend a lot of time on social media.  They are less restrained than older people: they have no fear of losing their jobs, they are not afraid of political police, and finally, they don’t recall the living standards of the 1990s — while the older generation finds today’s present conditions quite acceptable compared to back then.

Today’s protesters are more concerned about their lives in the future, while in 2011 protesters were rather afraid to lose what they already had achieved.  They were concerned about liberties, which were taken away, while the current generation has no clue about them.  That means that the Navalny’s supporters are less motivated, though they sound more revolutionary than the 2011 protesters. Therefore, the current demonstrations are far less likely to grow and expand.

Likes instead of Actions 

Another dimension of this difference is the approach toward media and social networks.  In order to become a significant factor of public life, the alternative movements should attract the attention of elites and middle class.  Traditional channels of interactions and gaining significance used to be TV, radio, and press.  Every successful revolution of protest, including that of 2011, used these channels in order to gain access to the middle class and the elite. Today’s protesters made their bet on the Internet, YouTube, information channels, posts and clips.  I believe that entails a significant danger: the new protesters, who consider journalism and traditional media obsolete, delude themselves by equating perception of information with an action. A report about a one million people rally and a monologue of a leader in front of a video camera, which one can watch on his/her tablet, are two very different things. The monologue of the computer replaces solidarity; likes and posts replace actions.  Internet activity replaces both real protests and intellectual content it was supposed to have.

The Reaction of Higher Ups 

In 2011, the government seemed confused and the ruling elite was noticeably split: many politicians who belong to the establishment participated in the protests. The rallies had official permission and occurred peacefully all the way till May 6, 2012. Now the Kremlin’s circle is united and there is no ‘confrontation/standoff’ between ‘liberals’ and ‘siloviki’ (politicians from the security or military services.) The powers that be are ready to crush any protest that seems to be threatening to them. The government is willing to fight its own people, and a thousand detained people for every rally is no longer newsworthy. There is no doubt that the protests will continue for a while, though I don’t think that Navalny would be able to ram the Kremlin’s walls. In face, quite the opposite: if the ‘multipolar’ opposition of 2011 was able to force Kremlin to be quite flexible, with the new protesters it will not budge.

When the entire opposition is reduced to one person, the chances for concessions are poor. This is exactly why electoral law was liberalized in the fall and winter of 2011, while today we can see an endless process of tightening the rules and regulations.

Outcomes of defeat

As I previously mentioned, the difference between the ‘protest of hope’ and the ‘protest of despair’ is that the first can bring victory and the second cannot.  However, the consequences of defeat are similar in both in the first and in the second: the dissatisfied part of society is demoralized and seeks individual strategies to get out. There are two ways out: private life and emigration, and so far the government doesn’t intend to block them. Therefore I dare to predict that that Russia’s future will feature not a rapid revolution, but a gradual degradation of power.  Navalny’s anticorruption campaign and (former Finance Minister) Alexei Kudrin’s attempts to improve the state apparatus will only prolong this process.  It would make much more sense to look beyond the horizon of the Putin era in the mid-2020s and to think over the conceptual features of the new Russia. And for these purposes, the leaders of 2011 protests will be much more useful than those of 2017.

This article first appeared at the RBC site.

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