December 4th to March 4th: Politicization, Protests, and Uncertainties of the Anti-Putin Movement in Russia
by MARIA CHEKHONADSKIKH and ALEXEI PENZIN
Before the mass protests
Of course, the mass explosion of protests against voting fraud during the parliamentary elections in December 2011 could not have come from nothing and it was not caused solely by formal procedural violations. After the transitional shock and “chaos” of the 1990s in Russia, in the new millennium this anomic condition was transformed into many local catastrophes, multi-layered corruption, administrative and police control of public spaces and media and an enormous gap between the richest and the poorest parts of the population. Putin’s PR advisors have created an ideology aimed at “forgetting” the previous state and simultaneously reinforcing new system of domination. The basic structure of narratives about “new stability” are similar to myth, culminating in one founding event – the transition from “chaos” to a new positive “order”. This narrative excluded all elements that did not support the picture of this brave new world – pensioners, students, inhabitants of “depressed regions,” migrants and cultural and educational workers. They were simply invisible in this landscape, along with glowing centers of anomia, informal relations, corruption, and everyday violence. Precarization and struggle with common vulnerability led to development of mafia-like networks of “alternative” forms of social protection, causing widespread skeptic attitudes to any forms of open public or political life. Taking this background of de-politicization over the last decade into account, recent street protests could seem even more miraculous than they really are. However, at the same time, it is also important to recall the many preconditions for the present grassroots political revival.
In late 2000s, resistance and self-organization developed into new social movements, in which many “new left” organizations took part (groups of anarchists, anti-fascists, socialists, separate groups of intellectuals and politicised cultural workers). For several years, the “Movement of the cheatedshareholders” (people who invested personal money in building houses but were cheated by developers) has created a huge network of mutual help and juridical assistance for prosecuted activists and organized protest actions in many Russian cities. One of the brightest examples was the movement for “Accessible school education for Russian children” – hunger strikes of tutors and parents have provoked similar actions across all Russia since 2010. Another recent example was the protest movement around saving Khimki forest, situated near a small town next to Moscow. An active part of the town population was against building a new highway that would cause the destruction of considerable part of the local forest. This protest has grown into a wide and energetic civil movement, labelled by journalists as the “Battle for Khimki”. Some independent trade unions recently got visibility by organizing several resonant strikes, like at the Ford factory near Petersburg. On the liberal side of political spectrum, there has been a lot of active and militant organizations and networks working against the violation of constitutional and human rights and many advances in building an alternative public sphere on the web, blogosphere and social networks.
The first trigger for on-going civil protest was the September 2011 congress of the United Russia party (the pro-Putin “ruling party”) when president Medvedev declared that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would participate in the next presidential elections. This surprising declaration (though expected by some observers) meant that Putin, applying the recently approved corrections to the Constitution of Russian Federation, has a real chance of being elected again for the next 6 years, and maybe then for another 6 years. For many, this 12-year perspective implied clear and depressive prolongation of the current status quo of fake “stability.”
“Are we the 146 %?”
Explosive mass politicization became visible on the day of the parliamentary elections held on December 4th, 2011 when a considerable part of urban citizens participated as civil observers at voting stations. It seems that almost every official percentage of votes for “United Russia” became not just a banal fraud, but manifested the quickly shifting balance of power and resistance in Russian society. Fraud provoked the first clashes between obedient and/or mercenary proponents of Putin’s regime and a resisting multitude from below. These “proponents” included passive lumpenized citizens, ready to forge ballots for 15 Euros, as well as the heads of local election committees, police officers and civil servants, obeying orders under the threat of being immediately fired. Nevertheless, this huge army could not suffocate civil resistance. Each minute, observers were uploading many outraging cases of violations of election procedures to web pages and social networks. The fraud was so absurd and clumsy that ridiculous errors of official media were exposed. For example, when at one state controlled channel a table of voting results from the Rostov region was shown, it was easy to see that the sum of the votes given to all the parties equalled 146 %. The indignant reports of independent observers at voting stations were followed by reports about arrests carried out during spontaneous protests after the elections. They were not simply isolated incidences of a transition from a neutral “observer” at a voting station to an indignant witness and then to a mobilized activist. This transition can be extended to a considerable part of the society at this moment.
The first big mobilization in Moscow happened in the day following the elections, on December 5th, when about 7,000 people protested against voting fraud. After an official meeting, some protesters, mostly activists and young people, moved towards Lubyanka Square – the symbolic place of power where state security offices are found. However, the protesters were blocked and quickly dispersed by police while some of the opposition leaders were arrested. The situation repeated the next day, when people went to Triumfalnaya Square, another symbolic place in the center of Moscow, marked as a meeting point for the liberal opposition movement “Strategy 31”, which has struggled to defend the right to peaceful assemblies and freedom of speech (article 31 of the Constitution of Russian Federation) over the last few years. Authorities forbade the meeting and blocked the area with special fences; military and police cars patrolled all along Tverskaya Street. On the perimeter of the square, groups of Kremlin-sponsored youth organizations, protected by police, chanted and shouted incessantly “Putin! Russia!” – an uncanny and nightmarish spectacle. The police operated in its habitual mode of aggressive dispersal and the arrest of protesters. That evening, both ordinary participants and journalists were cruelly beaten; police stations overflowed with arrests.
This action was the starting point of the government’s tactic to create the image of an “enemy” for the “good part of society” which had declared support for “stability” in this county. The next meetings and rallies were prepared with growing anxiety in the protesting community. The fear of the violence seen in 1993 during a rebellion against president Boris Yeltsin’s neoliberal reforms, when tanks shot Parliament and several hundred participants were killed, found its expression in the popular mantra “Peaceful transition, not revolution!” Facebook users created special instructions aimed at preventing possible “provocations” in coming meetings. The idea of many people, who probably took to the streets for first time in their lives, was to show the “peaceful and friendly” atmosphere of the rallies as opposed to the provocative style of radical political activists.
The rally in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on December 10th collected an unprecedented amount of participants – more then 60,000 people according to the oppositional press. Other Russian cities also joined in with demonstrations “for fair elections” with impressive amount of protesters and inventive slogans and banners. People expressed their political statements and affects with subversive humor or real fury. For safety reasons, nobody from the opposition committee moved towards the Kremlin together with the prominent writer and politician Eduard Limonov, leader of the National-Bolshevik party. From this moment on, the protest split into a radical militant part and a previously apolitical, mostly liberal part of civil activists and urban citizens. Police tactics have also changed. This change was caused by two factors: the negative reactions of international media and the decrease in stock exchange rates after the violence at Triumfalnaya Square, and the rapid growth of the movement –police authorities were aware of not being able to control it through such brutal violence.
Thus the huge mass of protesting people started to govern itself. On December 10th, the participants of the movement agreed to suppress any attempts of radical actions or appeals to aggressive behaviors, even in speeches and slogans. This new agreement about securitization of protest was, again, the effect of a “post-shock” way of thinking; a kind of deadlock when nobody believes in the positive changes made by revolutionary measures (after the Soviet experience and 1990s) and nobody really believes in peaceful transformation without any more or less radical action. The tendency to self-securitization continued at the next meeting on Sakharovsky Prospect on December 24thand during the recent march of protest on February 4th, 2012. Anyway, it was clear for everybody that the peaceful atmosphere of the protests existed only during biggest meetings and rallies. For example, when people went out to support Sergey Udaltsov, the coordinator for the Left Front coalition, arrested during the elections on December 4th in Moscow for allegedly “resisting police officers” and kept on hunger-strike more than two weeks, the police answered again with the standard methods of violence against activists.
Class composition of the movement and attempts at ideological articulation
From the very beginning, the social and political composition of the protest was not stable. Its changes become visible when one compares the first actions, dominated by political activists and youth, and those protests which followed after – participated in by many older age people, pensioners, precarious cultural and educational workers, as well as managers, office workers and “middle class” citizens.
If we look at the movement, the balance of powers also fluctuated from the hegemony of liberals to attempts to legitimate the ultra-right, which was coopted into the main committee of opposition chaired by Alexei Navalny, a well-known populist blogger with nationalist inclinations (he became well-known after his many investigations of corruption in the biggest Russian corporations). Unlike liberals, leftist voices in the committee were not very strong, partially because of the unspoken agreement to forget about any radical leftist “rhetoric”. The history of the post-Soviet radical Left is another story; suffice to say that, until now, the Left in public opinion has often been associated with the outdated and conservative communist party (Communist Party of Russian Federation) and vicissitudes of the Soviet past. On the other hand, thanks to local activism both from New Left organizations and critical intellectuals and artists, as well as recent visible traces of global economic turmoil, the social agenda has acquired more importance in public debates.
Anyway, the liberals attributed rising dissatisfaction with Putin’s politics to the so-called “middle class,” which has grown in 2000s – during Putin’s “stability.” They very quickly adopted the rhetoric of “Peaceful transition, not Revolution” as argument for future “normal market competition” of political forces in the election process. This idea of a political awakening of middle class was transferred onto the whole Russian protest against unfair elections. however, this monolithic construct reduces many differences among protesters. It is not only a simplification, but also a conscious ignoring of social and political differences inside the movement.In fact, we heard the demands on behalf of this “middle class,” and official mass-media post factum already assigning the label of “revolt of the urban middle class” to the movement.
But, for example, what about thousands of newcomers from small Russian towns who don’t have the official status of “registered” Moscow citizens (as well as in other big cities)? People from other towns are required to be officially registered with local authorities; without this registration, it is very problematic to go vote, as well as to receive medical treatment and other forms of social security. Renting an apartment in Moscow costs like more than half of an office worker’s average salary. The story is similar for students, teachers, artists, scholars and pensioners, who now fall into the category of “extremely poor” – nobody knows how they survive with the incomes they have (200-500 Euro per month). Actually, there is an invisible army of the poor within the movement. These protesters are a symptom of more profound social dissatisfaction with the humiliating living conditions for many in this well-educated urban population.
The ideology of the “urban middle class” definitely played a negative role for the protest. For small towns and villages, where people often do not use the Internet at all, the movement was represented via official media as a revolt of the wealthy, who, moreover (described by the state media in a weird sort of conspiracy theory), use funds from the United States administration in order to “come to power” and continue the anti-social politics of 1990s. Putin’s PR supporters were quick to catch onto this “middle class” topic to speculate on class differences between Moscow and the province, between the well-fed middle class and the poorest population. Now the state controlled media is opposing the turmoil brought on by protesters with the populist idea of “stability.” If, in the beginning, this propaganda image of “enemy” did not have any social face, now it is “clear” that this image, ironically, is an inversion of the old Soviet Marxism. It was designed as the face of the enemy of traditional working class (which is now concentrated mostly in provincial Russia) – as a “bourgeoisie,” concentrated in Moscow, Petersburg and other big cities.
Such a dangerous scenario is an important part of pre-election campaign of main Kremlin candidate, which has already had some results in raising Putin’s ratings. The “United Russia” party and the “Popular Front”, created by the Kremlin to simulate grassroot support of its politics, is organizing meetings in Moscow and across Russia to praise this notorious “stability” and its almighty champion, Vladimir Putin. A considerable part of industrial workers in smaller cities, led by several treacherous trade unions, as well as state-dependent civil servants are forced to attend the meetings via administrative coercion, blackmail or payoff.
“You cannot even imagine us!”
These new maneuvers prompted many critically minded protesters, not just on the Left, to think on how to re-articulate the movement view of the presidential Election Day on March 4th. “You cannot even imagine/represent us!” This slogan, playing on the Russian verb with the double meaning of both “to imagine” and “to represent”, sparked by a Petersburg’s radical student group in December, has become widespread as the most striking expression of the critical part of the movement.
The protestors’ distrust of liberal oppositional leaders has provoked the mass self-organization of people who wanted speak about their issues and make different suggestions on the tactics of struggle. For example, at the Sakharovsky Prospect rally on December 24th, there were alternative platforms of students, teachers, cultural workers and traditional civil movements. For example, during the meeting there was an open people`s mic and workshop “Making your slogans”, organized by Union for Cultural Workers and Occupy Moscow Movement. Every day, new alternative committees, platforms and activist initiatives have emerged since January 2012. This “constitutive power” of the people is growing and is more aware of the stalemate of representative politics of any sort. The recent rallies and actions on February 4th and 26th demonstrated exactly this – the joyful creativity of a network-organized multitude of protesters and their distrust of any forms of traditional and authoritarian political leadership.
One cannot predict now how and at what moment the growing protest will reach its peak, nor when it will be able to dismantle the regime of so-called “managed democracy” dominating Russia for the last 10 years. Probably, the protests will be so strong that, after March 4th, the situation will drastically change again. At the same time, many activists are thinking about long-term struggle and putting their hopes in the democratic elaboration of a more socially and economically attuned political agenda, dealing with topics of the global crisis of neoliberalism and the question of social justice. But something irreversible has already happened –mass politicization and a rising political consciousness cannot be stopped and trapped in banal mantras of representative democracy. This situation of openness and uncertainty itself is an achievement of the movement, which indeed was unthinkable only three moths ago in the midst of the despair of imagining Putin’s uncanny “stability” for the next 6 to 12 years.
Russian events are a serious pretext for thinking not just about uses and abuses of electoral grammar but about foundations of representative democracy itself. This model presupposes an ideal autonomous subject who expresses her/his opinions and political “views” through electoral machinery. Over the course of the last Russian elections, this model has been challenged, not only from the point of view of an abstract and many times repeated critique of ideology. That was the reality itself – barbaric and humiliating for the majority of the post-Soviet population, with its brutal force of money, administrative and police interventions, which neutralized any operation of law and flattened any political autonomy of citizens a long time ago, Russians have felt this merely on an abstract level, but on their vulnerable material bodies.
What is happening in Russia, even taking into account all its specificity, is not alien to the whole agenda of mass global protests, started last year by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, with all its breakthroughs and failures. The paradoxes and deadlock of representative democracy has become more and more visible today on the global scale. For example, where you have formally correct procedures of representation and non-falsified election results, you also have OWS or the indignados movement as an expression of disappointment of 99% in the capacity of such procedures to really “represent” or transmit needs and interests or to problematize social or economic realities. Here, we have these representational procedures in violated and cynically distorted forms and, as a result, the same mass mobilization of indignant people, aiming, consciously or unconsciously, not only to restore of these procedures but also to recognizing the same unsolved economic issues and social injustices common in all countries. Along with many friends here, we believe that our local struggles in 2012 will contribute to the emerging global movement for real democracy.