The opposition movement that has emerged since Russia’s disputed Duma poll last December has “shaken the old certainties about politics in the Putin era,” leading analysts suggest. “More than any other event since President Vladimir Putin’s rise to power 12 years ago, the protests have put the Kremlin on the defensive.”
But “the big question that will determine Russia’s political future is how much support this politicized vanguard can hope for from the quiet majority that lives outside Moscow and St. Petersburg,” according to Mikhail Dmitriev and Daniel Treisman.
The good news for the opposition is that recent research confirms that provincial Russians do not conform to the stereotype “of a politically apathetic conformist who is resentful of pampered Muscovites, socially conservative, generally pro-Putin, suspicious of the West, and nostalgic for Soviet order,” they write in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:
Yes, Russians outside Moscow and St. Petersburg have no appetite for the noisy street politics and abstract slogans of their big-city counterparts. But they are far from content with the current political system, which they see as hopelessly corrupt and inept at providing basic services. Their support for Putin grows thinner by the month, and a major economic crisis could quite easily provoke them into protests on a massive scale.
Findings from focus groups with residents of 16 Russian regions, organized by the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Research, are consistent with recent surveys by the independent Levada Center:
Although the concerns and cultures of Russia’s metropolises and its provinces differ, there is no contradiction between the urban activists’ dreams of greater freedom and democracy and mainstream Russians’ desires for honest police officers and well-run health clinics. Indeed, a more accountable state would almost certainly be a more effective one. The ultimate challenge for Russia’s liberal activists is to forge these two strands of dissatisfaction into a united coalition for change.
“Like the liberal activists, Russians from other parts of the social spectrum exhibit a powerful desire for change. But their focus is quite different,” they argue:
Whereas the Moscow crowds have rallied behind abstract concepts, such as fairness and democracy, much of the rest of the country is fiercely nonideological and cares far more about concrete, local issues. Across different regions and social classes, Russians are most concerned with the state’s dwindling ability to provide essential services, such as health care, education, housing, personal security, and effective courts.
In short, Russia’s opposition faces the challenge familiar to liberal democrats in the Middle East and elsewhere: appealing to and mobilizing citizens on the basis of needs as well as rights, through interests as well as ideals.
The growing influence of ultra-nationalists has caused alarm in some circles and debate within Russia’s opposition. But the focus group research shows that nationalist rhetoric “failed to resonate” with provincial Russians, Dmitriev and Treisman observe:
To be sure, Russians have hardly forsworn populism for good, and the participants did tend to favor increases in military spending to restore the army’s strength. Suspicion of the West was one area in which Putin’s rhetoric struck a chord with the focus groups. Still, their impatience with nationalist and leftist slogans is consonant with other signs that a shift in values is under way in Russia, and not just among the metropolitan elite.
They endorse political analyst Kirill Rogov’s observation that Russia’s third value shift since 1991 is underway:
First came the burst of enthusiasm for Western-style democracy and markets after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then, reacting to the chaotic change of the 1990s, Russians began to show a preference for centralization, hierarchy, and state control. Disappointment with Putin’s ineffective and corrupt top-down governance is now pushing Russia back toward a desire for more open and less intrusive leadership.
Given that the Kremlin has sought to undermine the potential popular appeal of Russia’s democratic opposition by exploiting “perceived cultural divisions between the big-city liberals and the more traditional, blue-collar provinces,” the Pussy Riot case was a godsend, they suggest:
Since the demonstrations began, Kremlin spokespeople have sought to portray them as an amusement for pampered Muscovites, disreputable celebrities, unpopular minority groups, and violent anarchists. They pounced with evident relish on the case of Pussy Riot….Had the Kremlin’s spin doctors concocted a fake video to shock ordinary Russians and discredit the capital’s youth, they could hardly have produced something more effective.
The likely trial of dissident blogger Alexei Navalny will be a more significant test of the regime’s willingness to tolerate dissent, says Stephen Sestanovich, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Putin has also tried to combat the growing assertiveness of Russian civil society through a new law targeting foreign-funded NGOs, alongside various other measures which prompted one leading activist to warn of the Kremlin’s Cold War against civil society.
But the surprising vibrancy of civil society is evident from “an impressive range of local quality-of-life initiatives have emerged over the last few years,” Dmitriev and Treisman note, including “volunteers coordinating on the Internet to fight forest fires, amateur preservationists picketing a proposed skyscraper project in St. Petersburg, and a campaign to block the construction of a superhighway through the wilderness in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.”
Such local initiatives provide a potential basis for the emergence of a provincially-rooted opposition movement, they suggest:
Indeed, given the pervasive skepticism that the focus groups revealed, it is hard to see how a future leader could build a national coalition except by appealing to grass-roots activists, respected local officials, and ordinary citizens. A program of returning power to local communities and embracing small-scale experiments in governance could energize a public, in both the cities and the provinces, that is alienated from the stage-managed politics it sees on television. It could also win broad appeal for Putin’s successor.
The Levada Center receives support from the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.