The anti-Kremlin rallies last weekend may not have attracted the numbers of the protests five years ago, but they were more widespread and better organised. We have seen a taste of things to come.
President Putin may remain relatively popular with a majority of Russians, but with low oil prices and a basket case economy leading to huge cuts in government spending, that may change.
Just 3 years ago Russian government spending assumed an oil price of at least $80 a barrel. Infrastructure projects and long term spending to modernize the military were certainly not predicated on last year’s average of about $35 a barrel. Now prices seem unlikely to reach $80 this year, inflation is at least at 6% (probably higher), the ruble has lost 50% of its 2014 value against the dollar and there’s little innovation or investment to stimulate the economy.
Therefore, as the government seems unlikely to be able to afford to spend its way out of trouble, and the cuts will continue, so, probably, will the protests.
Over the weekend there were protests in almost 100 cities right across the country. What looks different from the previous wave of unrest is the sophistication of the organisation.
The demonstrations were mostly put together by the Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF) led by Alexei Navalny. It spent most of the winter compiling a dossier which it says proves corruption by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The Foundation then released its claims to the media, and the dwindling number of outlets prepared to defy the government reported them.
With the Kremlin’s iron like grip on traditional mass media there was limited national pick up of the Foundation’s claims, but, using a network of young activists, they were widely disseminated on the country’s largest social media network – Vkontakte. The network was the used to organise and publicise the demonstrations.
The ACF now has regional campaign offices in Kazan, Novogorod, Vladivostock and other cities as well as its headquarters in St. Petersburg. The staffing levels and equipment costs of this network is unclear, as is from where the money comes from to fund it, but there is obviously enough in the bank to have established a national movement.
Local media reports suggest that Mr Navalny has promised legal aid to protestors who are arrested at the demonstrations. Hundreds were rounded up at the weekend, among them Mr Navalny. If this is true, and more importantly, if it done, it will show us that the level of organisation surpasses previous shows of dissent.
Why now? Probably, mostly because of the state of the economy has caused enough anger to get people back on the streets, but it’s also because there is now just under a year to go until the next Presidential election.
Mr Putin knew this was coming. He’s created a National Guard for his personal protection and purged ministries of anyone he deems not loyal enough. He will maintain control of Russia this year, and he will probably win the election next year – but not without a fight, and that fight has just begun.
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We wait to see the scale of future demonstrations, the ACF knows it must build momentum across the year, Putin knows he must halt it.