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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Loaves and fishes

Russia's liberal opposition has generally put its faith in protests over democratic rights, freedom of speech and corruption ­ hoping to attract a broad coalition of supporters.

But it is noticeable that the country's biggest protest marches and rallies in recent years have actually been on specific, largely economic issues that affect people's day-to-day lives.

In 2005 it was the pensioners who delivered the biggest wake-up call to the government ­ braving sub-zero temperatures to complain about the miserly monetisation of benefits.

The movement ­ organised by no one but the pensioners themselves (certainly by none of the country's existing political parties) ­ achieved a result, in that the authorities rethought their plans and introduced improvements, raising pensions and benefits across the board.

In 2008-9, when the global financial crisis started hitting hardest in Russia, the biggest protest movements came on specific local issues: the car import duty in Vladivostok, and regional taxes and utility payments at the other end of Russia, in Kaliningrad.

Over the last year, again the most vocal social protests have been local: ecology protests near Lake Baikal, anti-highway protests over Khimki forest, time zone protests in Kamchatka, Khabarovsk, Izhevsk and Samara.

(Moscow's recent race riot and antiracist rally two weeks later were the only major exception. But they also had a specific local cause too: the killing of a Spartak football fan.)

The most recent issue is the privatisation of fishing rights. This prompted more than 3,000 anglers to take to the streets in Kazan and 1,500 people to turn up on Pushkin Square.

Of course, Russian society faces huge unresolved, underlying issues of corruption and democratic rights. But typically these broad causes do not tend to be the spark for Egypt-style mass protests. Bread-and-butter, or perhaps loaves-and-fishes, issues are what get ordinary people worked up in the first instance ­ and determined to stand up and be counted.

It's when the authorities or the opposition (in any country around the world) ignore such basic economic issues that the kind of volcanic social eruptions we've seen in the Arab world take place.

So perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised when seemingly mundane everyday problems suddenly give governments a huge wake-up call.

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