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Comment on protests

Moscow Protest File Photo
From: Svetlana Babaeva svetlana.babaeva@gmail.com
Date: Tue, 12 Jun 2012
Subject: Comment on protests

Svetlana Babaeva, RIA Novosti (Russian News & Information Agency), Senior Analyst

The demonstrations that took place in Moscow on June 12, Russia's Independence Day, proved that the new anti-protest sanctions will not prevent the people from showing their discontent.

The Russian parliament passed last week new legislation that dramatically increases penalties for administrative violations during public protests. The bill was specially designed to rein in street activity, and took just a few days for lawmakers to pass it.

Those who opposed the law marched out in protest during the debates in Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, but the votes of the pro-government caucus, "United Russia", were enough to pass. The upper chamber made even shorter work of the bill in just hours.

This heavy-handed law is a clear government reaction to the street activity that has increased in the big cities since December.

The first protest, the largest since President Putin came to power in 2000, was a public outcry against fraud during the parliamentary election in December. This was followed by other protests, particularly on the eve of Putin's inauguration in May, ending up with more than 400 detainees. According to eyewitnesses, both sides acted tough ­ cops retaliated harshly against the actions of some violent provocateurs among the protesters, inciting greater tensions.

Right after these riots, a new law was crafted showing that authorities will resort to a policy of maintaining order at the expense of freedom of assembly.

This is a clear signal to the public that authorities consider these demonstrations to be violations of public order rather than a legitimate demand for change. Protesters are, in fact, now equated with street hooligans.

However, according to many experts, these government steps may have an effect opposite of calming the situation. The anti-protest legislation would rather cause a backlash this tough approach and a civic disruption may again break forth in autumn.

A study conducted recently by Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Center for the Study of the class rule at the Russian Academy of Sciences, shows the protesters' core is broadening. Authorities should be more scrupulous in the steps they take, she says; this civil unrest won't disappear so long as the underlying conditions persist.

First among these is the authorities' total domination in most public arenas, that results in the erosive corruption and inefficiency of public services, which, in turn, cause profound economic and social dysfunctions.

That's why one of the key tasks for Putin's new presidential term is to forge relationships with those social groups that have made plain their discontent with the current course of government. The authorities' ability and willingness to launch a broader public dialogue and to take into account different points of view presented on the civic stage could largely determine how successful this presidency will be for the reinstated leader.

While the citizens of small towns with old Soviet industrial structure still firmly support Putin's 'course toward stability', according to Lev Gudkov, one of the leading Russian sociologists and head of the independent Levada Research Center, the wealthy, more creative and educated big city dwellers, particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg, call for urgent political reforms involving the judicial and electoral systems.

This is the first time in more than a decade when such a visible demand for greater public involvement in governance is being revealed. We can see now that the social contract between the society and the authorities tacitly made in early 2000's is running out and needs to be replaced by a more democratic agreement.

The essence of this old understanding looked like this ­ authorities don't pry into the private affairs of the public, and the public doesn't pry into the political activities of their ruling class.

The situation is changing now, as progressives demand a real dialogue with authorities, which will create a broader popular base for top-down initiatives and avoid a new rising tide of discontent.

The irony is that this demand comes in an environment that itself arose from the first two terms of Putin's presidency and the course he held toward stability, and without citizens intruding into the process of governance.

During these years, a wealthy urban middle class emerged and took shape, and recently, starting with the public protests in December, it has demanded that the government abandon its practice of monopolizing all civic activities in Russia.

These voices of protest were able to rise and be heard largely by means of the new communication technologies, that have so expanded in the digital era. According to comScore Inc. by the end of 2012, "The Russian Internet audience continued to grow and surpass Germany as the largest online market in Europe."

This rapid surge of the internet and social networks is one of the most important changes in Russian society in the past few years, though the authorities have yet to comprehend its significance.

However, even with these new sanctions against street activity it would be a mistake for the government to believe that the public will be satisfied just to resume its internet activity in the chat rooms and so on. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that "Following a winter of discontent, Russians express an increased appetite for political freedom."

"Compared with just a few years ago, more Russians believe that voting gives people like themselves an opportunity to express their opinion about the country's governance... and greater numbers see freedom of the press and honest elections as very important."

The question remains whether the authorities are willing to concede. So far, they are not, and this political shortsightedness may bring about some of the worst political turmoil Russia has seen in the last decade.

Keywords: Russia, Protests, Politics - Russia News - Russia

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