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The protest potential of Russian society

10:01, 28-го липня 2020 · Джерело: institutedd.org

The protest potential of Russian society
The protest potential is a complicated political phenomenon which is rather difficult to assess and interpret.

Firstly, the protest potential embraces a wide spectrum of social and political processes and its main vehicle can be both the society in general and social groups taken separately. 

Secondly, the protest potential can be realized in various ways: from the most critical actions including mass riots, violent moves to more reserved ones: criticism against authorities, conscious and willful disregard of elections and referendums (absenteeism) or other forms of the political abstention. 

Thirdly, the interpretation of the protest potential’s evaluation depends on the interpreter’s political views (the scientific interpretation should exclude the political position), when local protests can be treated without a sound basis as a threat to political regime or territorial integrity of the country, and vice versa, their significance can be deliberately minified. 

The notion of the protest potential includes the following social and political phenomena: level of credibility of the authorities; level of political engagement; subjective evaluation of the protests likelihood; personal willingness to participate in protests (the intensity of the protest willingness is assessed by readiness to participate in the peaceful or violent actions). Assessing the protest potential we take into consideration the data from three leading Russian research centers. The Levada Center is thought to be the most independent and it enjoys the status of a “foreign agent” in Russia.

The main indicators of the protest potential used in its assessment are the following: 1) subjective evaluation of the mass protests likelihood; 2) personal willingness to participate in protests. Of course, these indicators are not the last. 

We can compare the data of the three leading centers according to these indicators (the formulating of the survey questions may slightly differ).

The protest potential evaluation provided by the leading sociological research centers of Russian Federation

The Levada Centre (May, 2020) The “Obshestvennoe mnenie (public opinion) Fund” (July, 2020) VCIOM (June, 2020)
How probable are the mass demonstrations in your city/area against the living standards’ degradation? If meetings, demonstrations, protest actions were held in your area within a month or two, how many people would participate? How probable are the mass demonstrations in your city/area against the living standards’ degradation, the unfair practices of the authorities and for protection of your rights and freedoms?
Generally possible  27 % Many  26%  Generally possible  24%
Unlikely  61% Not many  51%  Unlikely  68%
Difficult to answer 12%   None  5% Difficult to answer 8%  
Difficult to answer  17%  
Would you personally participate or not in such kind of mass protests if they do take place? Would you personally participate or not in the meetings, demonstrations, protest actions if they do take place in your area within a month or two? Would you personally participate or not, if there are mass demonstrations in your city/area against the living standards’ degradation, the unfair practices of the authorities and for protection of your rights and freedoms?
More likely yes  28% Yes, I would  24% More likely I would participate  18%
More likely no  68% No, I would not  69% More likely I would not participate  76%
Difficult to answer  4% Difficult to answer  8% Difficult to answer  6%

As you can see, about a quarter of Russian people are ready for the active protests, which is quite high. But most of them are convinced that mass protests are unlikely to happen. While interpreting these data, we should bear in mind that they do not reflect the readiness for specific form of the protest: peaceful or violent. Therefore, we cannot judge the level of radicalization of the society. But we should also consider that the formulating of the survey questions reduces the list of options for the protest participation to its traditional forms and does not include such as social media activity, absenteeism, and so on. Thus, the ruling Russian regime delegitimization level cannot be judged solely on the basis of such quantitative indicators. Therefore, Russian independent sociologists point to a slow but fairly stable erosion of Putinism in Russia, expressed by the people’s being tedious of V. Putin’s cult of personality, poor state of affairs in Russia, declining trust in the president within key social groups, and relatively low level of credibility of the authorities.

However, it should be noted that one of the major challenges for the protest potential realization is the population being convicted that there is no alternative to the incumbent president, and afraid of instability and possible conflicts within Russia. Therefore, the protest potential can take the form of political inertia, non-participation in political processes. In fact, Russian society is characterized by considerable lack of political bias and impartiality. Other challenges may include the “the Crimean consensus” (consolidation of elites and society around Russia’s policy towards Crimea and Ukraine), which is although getting weaker, continues to affect the domestic political situation and the population’s readiness to accept the restrictions living under the sanctions.

Thus, the protest behavior is a form of political participation. Therefore, the protest potential research involves assessing the political activity of society or its individual groups. Of course, in the context of predicting the protests young people are of particular interest.

In general, Russian youth are passive and politically incompetent, according to the “Russian “Generation Z”: Attitudes and Values” study conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation jointly with the Levada Center. 

Thus, 80% of Russian youth are not interested in politics and only for 19% it is the matter of interest.

At the same time, Russian research findings show that, along with political inertia, young people make specific claims to the authorities regarding the restrictions on the Internet, censorship, messengers blocking, and excessive violence on the part of the police. This, alongside the falling living standards, could deepen the process of young people estrangement from the state authority. And while the Russian youth cannot yet be referred to as actively protesting, the decline of the current political regime’s popularity with them could have strategic consequences.

Today the incumbent Prime Minister M. Mishustin is losing popularity with young people. The biggest drop in Mishustin’s rating was observed in April, which coincided with the establishment of the anti-epidemic restrictions in Russian Federation. His policy was approved by 40% of Russians aged 18-24 and 40-54 years. In January, the favorability rating in these age groups was 47% and 49%, respectively. Also, 33% of the respondents aged from 25 to 39 approved him in April, and in January the figure showed 42%. In June, the prime minister’s rating among young people aged from 18 to 24 fell down to 39%.

Considering the protest of the youth, it is worth mentioning that the ways of expression of their political position often do not match the traditional protest moves (pickets, rallies etc.). For example, to express disagreement with the amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, in social media they used special “avatars” (profile pictures) bearing the text: “I am against the amendments”. The young people’s protest against the attempts of the Russian authorities to control the popular messenger Telegram was expressed through a mass flash mob when they threw paper airplanes (the sign of Telegram) from the windows.

Thus, each social group as the protest potential bearer can use different ways for its realization, which should be taken into account when researching this issue.

The localized explosions: an attempt to explain. The protests taking place in the regions of the Russian Federation are often treated as signs of Russia’s management system’s crisis. In the context of the domestic political agenda in Ukraine, such protests are hoped to trigger the “collapse” of the Russian Federation. But in this situation there is a risk of having just a wishful thinking, and hence misunderstanding of the internal processes in the Russia.

Nevertheless, it should be agreed that local protests are indicators of significant problems in regional governance in Russia. Of particular note is the fact that the inter-territorial relations in Russia are characterized as centro-peripheral, which means the unequal position of the regions relative to the center. Thus, the “Russian hinterland” phenomenon occurs demonstrating the uneven development of social infrastructure and significant disparity of living standards. The periphery’s resistance to the center is typical for such relations, so in many cases separatism is nothing more than the struggle of the periphery against its exploitation by the center. Remote location, multinational society, and political culture differences contribute to the emergence of plural regional identities, which makes the process of regional governance more complicated and forces the government to react harshly to any separatist tendencies. Therefore, Russia constitutes an eclectic combination of federalism and authoritarianism in the management of territories. Under these circumstances, it cannot yet be judged precisely what nature the local protests have: are they political and directed against the ruling regime? Or do they demonstrate the central-peripheral relations? Are they an attempt to protect the life standards and conditions developed in the course of social practice in a particular area? All these issues require separate consideration. We can limit ourselves to a few remarks.

Local interests and local protests. The communities living in a certain area create not only the local identity, but are also characterized by common needs, interests and problems that arise in course of their lives. The protests, which sometimes break out in Russian regions, often show the attempts of local communities to defend their interests. Today, the concept of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) protests is becoming more widespread in social journalism, which reflects the protests against arrangement of certain objects or people (such as migrants or evacuees form the epidemic-prone areas), which are considered as menacing on the territory of the community. Of course, such protests also have a political aspect, as they are reflected in the image of the authority and are the form of resistance to the government.

A vivid example is the protests against the construction of a landfill near the station Shies in the Arkhangelsk region of Russia. This case is interesting because it demonstrated the willingness of local communities to oppose the government acting contrary to people’s interests. The protest potential in such circumstances greatly exceeds the public indices. Thus, in 2019, 49% of respondents of the Levada Center survey were ready to take part in concerted protests against the construction of the landfill in Shiez, 48% were ready to oppose the construction and personally spread information among acquaintances and friends, 40% were ready to oppose and spread information on social media, 27% said they were willing to help organize the protests, 25% were willing to participate in the uncoordinated protests. As we can see, such protests are marked by greater radicalization of their participants.

Political protests. Recent events in Khabarovsk also demonstrate that the political culture of the regions acquires its own specifics and different levels of democratism. And although the protests against the arrest of S. Furgal should not be exaggerated, they are still an important symptom of the current political regime’s failures and problems of the system of territorial governance. The protest activity in Khabarovsk is clearly reflected by the low voter turnout for amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation and “zeroing” of the presidential term of V. Putin. In the Khabarovsk Krai, according to the Russian CEC, the turnout was 44%, which is significantly lower than average in Russia. The level of support for the amendments was 62.28%. For example, in the occupied Crimea (according to the same data), the amendments were supported by 90.7%. And although the actions of the regions usually do not lead to the democratization of governance, but to a greater reduction of federalism and intensified struggle against local political elites, they clearly show that the legitimacy of the current political regime in Russia is “unevenly spread”.

Factors to increase the protest potential. Many different factors affect people’s lives, both in terms of external conditions (for example, economic status) and personal characteristics (age, education, values). The change of intensity of these factors also leads to a difference in the protest potential in social groups. Thus, research allows us to mark out the most influential factors in the protest potential:

Age. The protest potential differs according to the age groups. For example, the largest number of those who want to take part in protests is in the age group of 18 to 24 (40%), as well as in the group of 40 to 54 (35%).

Place of residence. 33% of respondents in rural areas are ready to protest, but only 25% of them see the possibility of such actions to be held.

Economic status. The poorest show the greatest readiness to participate in the economic protests. In particular, among those who assess their financial status as “barely enough for food” 37% are ready to participate. Accordingly, when the level of wealth increases, the skepticism concerning the protests grows too. Among those who “can afford the durable goods” 25% are ready to protest, while only 20% see the possibility to arrange the protests.

Level of education. People with secondary education are the most protesting: 32%. And the least protesting are those whose level of education is below the secondary one: 21%.

Conclusions. To crown it all, the protest potential is a probability value that depends on many factors of a systemic and situational nature. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to focus on it while predicting mass protests, especially when the change of political regime (today they are often referred to as revolutions) are practically unpredictable.

For example, before the Euromaidan, Ukrainian sociologists did not record any particular radicalization of society, but the beating of students generated a strong impulse to the rapid politicization and protest consolidation of society.

Spontaneous mass protests are virtually unpredictable and often have little to do with the level of protest. They belong to the paradoxical social phenomena, the comprehension of which occurs only after they have happened and it concerns the study of their preconditions. Once, P. Shtompka (Shtompka PSociology of social changes (Социология социальных изменений). URL.: https://klex.ru/lde) pointed out the similarity of revolutions to earthquakes as one their paradoxes. Revolutions always come as a surprise even to the revolutionist themselves, and random events (impulses) are extremely important in course of their development (as well as in the intensification of spontaneous mass protests).

In the given preconditions (acute social contradictions, delegitimization of the political regime, difficult economic situation), such impulses lead to rapid politicization and radicalization of society or its part, even in conditions of mass indifference to politics. Given this, measuring the protest potential makes it possible to study the intensity of the internal social contradictions and the level of legitimacy of political power.

Oleksandr Kovtun, Candidate of Sociological Sciences, Khmelnytsky Institute of Social Technologies, specially for the Institute of Democratization and Development.

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