Monday, March 27, 2017

In Protests, Kremlin Fears a Young Generation Stirring

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Riot police officers detaining a protester in Moscow on Sunday. Hundreds of people were arrested, in many cases simply for showing up, in protests across the country on Sunday. CreditAlexander Utkin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
MOSCOW — The weekend anticorruption protests that roiled Moscow and nearly 100 Russian towns clearly rattled the Kremlin, unprepared for their size and seeming spontaneity. But perhaps the biggest surprise, even to protest leaders themselves, was the youthfulness of the crowds.
A previously apathetic generation of people in their teens and 20s, most of them knowing nothing but 17 years of rule by Vladimir V. Putin, was the most striking face of the demonstrations, the biggest in years.
It is far from clear whether their enthusiasm for challenging the authorities, which has suddenly provided adrenaline to Russia’s beaten-down opposition, will be short-lived or points to a new era. Nor is it clear whether the object of the anger — blatant and unabashed corruption — will infect the popularity of Mr. Putin.
But the harshness of the response to the protests on Sunday — hundreds of people were arrested, in many cases simply for showing up — suggested that Mr. Putin’s hierarchy was taking no chances.
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Artyom Troitsky, a Russian journalist and concert promoter who for years has tracked Russian youth culture, said the fact that so many young people took part in the protests in Moscow and elsewhere “is exceptionally important.”
The reason, he said, is that “young people have always been a catalyst for change,” and their presence suggests a break from the lack of political interest they had exhibited in recent years.
This “does not necessarily mean that the tide has turned,” but “something is definitely changing,” he said. “But is it changing on a substantial scale, or is this again just a tiny minority, which will mean this all ends up in another flop, another failure like before?”
Aleksei A. Navalny, the anticorruption campaigner and opposition leader who orchestrated the nationwide protests — and who received a 15-day prison sentence on Monday for resisting arrest — said in court that he was surprised at the turnout on Sunday and that he was determined to keep up the pressure by running in next year’s presidential election.
“I think yesterday’s events have shown that there are quite a large number of voters in Russia who support the program of a candidate who speaks for the fight against corruption,” he said.
That Mr. Navalny has little to no chance of winning, and that he is ineligible to compete because of a February conviction on what were widely viewed as politically motivated fraud charges, is taken for granted. But that may not be the point.
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Protesters in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sunday. The nationwide demonstrations were the most extensive show of defiance in years. CreditDmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press
Samuel A. Greene, an expert on Russian protest movements at King’s College London, said Mr. Navalny had a chance to thaw Russia’s frozen political horizons and show that a post-Putin era would, at least some day, be possible.
“People — both in the Kremlin and the 80 percent or so who tell pollsters they support Putin — have all been acting for years on the assumption that the ice is very thick and will never break. What Navalny is trying to do is show that it is not, and will one day crack,” Mr. Greene said. “Once people begin to believe the ice is in fact thin, it doesn’t matter how thick it really is, and everything can change very suddenly.”
More than 13 million people have watched a Russian-language video posted on YouTube early this month by Mr. Navalny detailing alleged corruption by Mr. Putin’s prime minister and close ally, Dmitri A. Medvedev.
Making the prime minister, widely despised by liberals and conservatives alike, the focus of his exposé instead of Mr. Putin was a shrewd move by Mr. Navalny, who has proved far more nimble at gauging public sentiment and embarrassing the authorities than the marginalized liberal opposition.
That the Kremlin has been vexed by Mr. Navalny is clear from the authorities’ response to what, in most countries, would be inconsequential protests that merely disrupted traffic. The police arrested protesters in some cases for nothing more than carrying a rubber duck, a symbol of extravagant money reportedly spent on a duck pond at a government residence.
Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, accused protest organizers on Monday of leading young Russians — “virtually children,” he said — astray with lies and provocations.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political strategist, called the protesters “Putin’s children,” the beneficiaries of and now a significant threat to the years of stability and relative prosperity of Mr. Putin’s rule.
Many youthful Russians get their information not from state news media, which has ignored Mr. Navalny and his corruption exposés, but from the internet.
“Russia is really stuck in the past,” said Ilya Amutov, a 25-year-old technology worker who marched in Moscow on Sunday. Young people, he said, “just want to live like normal, modern people in the rest of Europe.”
In an audio recording posted online that infuriated many young people and drove them to join the protests, a provincial school director can be heard harshly lecturing students before the demonstrations on why they must not attend.
In the past, the Kremlin has been highly skillful at channeling the energy of young Russians away from opposition political activism into a pro-Putin youth movement called Nashi and other patriotic ventures.
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A man shouting antigovernment slogans in downtown Moscow. Thousands of protesters crowded into Pushkin Square on Sunday. CreditAndrew Lubimov/Associated Press
But Aleksei A. Chesnakov, the director of the Center for Current Policy and a former Kremlin official who advised the president on domestic politics, said that in recent years the government had largely withdrawn support for pro-Putin youth movements, leaving the authorities without the ability to stage counterprotests and keep young people occupied.
“Now, the government requires police and administrative methods to ensure the opposition doesn’t cross the line,” he said.
The limits of this approach were on stark display Sunday when the protesters were not retirees or gritty industrial workers of Russian protests past, but iPhone-wielding, takeaway-coffee-carrying urban youths, representing Mr. Putin’s long-term challenge.
Mikhail Dmitriev, a former deputy minister of economy and a sociologist, who foresaw this middle-class discontent before it surfaced in 2011 street protests, called it “a political detonator” for the Putin order.
Using sophisticated survey techniques to cut through respondents’ fears of political repression, Mr. Dmitriev also predicted after Russia’s 2014 military intervention in Ukraine that the resulting patriotic surge would one day calm, allowing latent discontent to revive, particularly in Moscow, where the middle class is concentrated.
As war fervor faded, he wrote in a study of the public mood, “aggression will transfer from foreign enemies to bureaucrats and immigrants.” Demand would rise for what he termed “human development,” or better education, medicine and other services from the government.
The election of President Trump has also played into this dynamic by depriving Mr. Putin, who scorned President Barack Obama and accused Hillary Clinton of sending “a signal” that set off Russian protesters in 2011-12, of any easy foreign scapegoat for Russia’s troubles.
Despite the dynamic in the capital, the vast majority of Russians still cling to the leader they know in Mr. Putin. His popularity ratings have slipped, but only marginally, now that the nationalist euphoria set off by his 2014 annexation of Crimea has started to wane. A February opinion poll by the Levada Center, a Moscow public research group, found that 84 percent of respondents said they approved of Mr. Putin’s work as president, down only slightly from a high of 86 percent in 2015.
Even pro-government analysts conceded that focusing on urban quality-of-life issues in Moscow — which became the Kremlin’s main response, along with police crackdowns, to the previous protests in Moscow — might not keep a lid on the discontent.
“The middle class and the youth are not happy,” Mr. Chesnakov, the policy institute director, said in a phone interview. “They are not concerned about sidewalks and parks. Sidewalks and parks are good, but the people want the government to listen.”
He added: “The middle class is not discontented because it gets nothing, but because it wants something else. The government says, ‘Do you want a wider sidewalk?’ They say, ‘We want a more transparent government.’”
NYT

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