Winston Churchill once famously described the Kremlin as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Now, an American expert on Russia suggests that “paradox” is an applicable term.
At no point since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has the Kremlin’s current authority, embodied in Russia’s paramount leader Vladimir Putin, been so strong and political opposition in Russia been so cowed. And yet, according to Graeme Robertson, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, civil society in Russia is much more vibrant now than two decades ago.
Since Putin succeeded former Russian president Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve 1999/2000, “civil society has grown and developed and become more diversified and more sophisticated than at any time in the post-communist period,” Robertson said during a recent talk sponsored by The George Washington University. Robertson discussed the findings contained in his recently published book, The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes: Managing Dissent in Post- Communist Russia.
The topic of Robertson’s research is particularly timely, given the surge of protests that have swept through the Muslim world. Robertson’s extensive fieldwork in the Russian Federation focused on the 1996-2008 period. He joked that for years he always had to begin talks with a standard introductory remark that explains to audiences why they should study protests and protest movements rather than elections or constitutions. But with the events of the last few weeks, he no longer has to do so.
“What happens in the streets can be politically very consequential … especially in the kinds of regimes that I think characterize present-day Russia that have this sort of interesting mix of some kinds of elections and some kinds of political freedoms, but elections and political freedoms that fall very short of what we consider to be representative democracy,” Robertson said.
In conducting his research, Robertson could examine data concerning developments in the late 1990s that had not previously been available: daily briefings prepared for senior Russian security officials by local Interior Ministry offices located throughout the country. The reports map patterns of political protests, including labor strikes, rail and road blockades, and demonstrations.
Many of these protests are directed at remedying local issues, such as unpaid wages, environmental abuses, or other grievances against the state. Some, however, are overtly political, such as local demonstrations for increased autonomy from Moscow, or hunger strikes carried out by prisoners who have no other means to access to the political system.
According to Robertson, protests give you a “lens that allows you to see the interaction between state and formal institutions, and society more generally, … and organized society in particular.” For example, Putin and his team learned from the experience of the 1990s the importance of controlling potential mass protesters and their elite managers. They created a political system “that gave very strong incentives for … all the elites to form common cause with Moscow rather than organize against it.” At the same time, the Putin administration aimed “to create real costs for those that step outside the system.”
Putin succeeded in bringing the regional governors, the labor movements, and other previously independent actors in Russia under the Kremlin’s control. Most innovative was the “active mobilization of pro-regime supporters” in the form of the Nashi youth movement. The idea was to “outnumber the anti-regime protesters with … young, good-looking, energetic pro-regime protesters” who made the regime look dynamic. They also co-opted other social “organizations designed to bring civil society into government.”
Although these “ersatz social movements” displaced the emerging independent movements, Robertson said these Kremlin-created groups have the potential to take on a life of their own. Despite the regime’s controls, civil society has become denser and better organized under Putin. In addition, should the elites divide, they would naturally seek to mobilize this social basis. We might see this occur soon with the approach of the 2012 presidential elections and the renewed interest in using mass protest to effect regime change now that the revolutions in the Middle East, like the earlier wave of colored revolutions in the former Soviet republics, have shown their potential.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.