A new protest movement in opposition to the Russian government is gaining momentum. Many media outlets have drawn attention to the participation of Russian youth, particularly teenagers, in recent demonstrations. But how significant are they for contemporary Russian politics?
The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny marches on Tverskaya street, March 2017 © Evgeny Feldman.
During this year’s ‘Direct Line’, the Kremlin’s annual special television programme and Q&A show that gives Russian citizens the opportunity to directly appeal to their president, young Danil Prilep got up to ask a controversial question: Why is the fight against government corruption not being conducted effectively in Russia?
President Putin’s response left the tenth grader unsatisfied as he later told Russian news agency Ria Novosti. ‘Did you come up with this question yourself or did someone recommend it to you?’, Putin asked before assuring the young student that the problem of corruption is well known to him and that no offense is left without state attention or punishment.
Putin’s response is illustrative of the Kremlin’s most recent attempts to discredit Russia’s non-systemic political opposition, led by anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. Navalny is the leader and most prominent face of the opposition Progress Party, and the Kremlin have accused him of manipulating and instrumentalising young Russians with only his own political interests in mind.
Nevertheless, he is one of the few political leaders in Russia to successfully mobilise large groups of people against the political elite, and in 2013, he came second in the Moscow mayoral election, winning 27% of the vote. In December 2016, Navalny announced that he wants to run in the 2018 presidential elections but has since then been barred from running because of corruption charges. The charges brought against him are thought to be part of the Kremlin’s attempts to tarnish his campaign.
On 26 March, and again on 12 June, several Russian cities across the country saw thousands of protesters take to the streets. These demonstrations were called for by Mr Navalny. Previously, he had launched an online campaign called ‘He is not Dimon to you’, an investigation conducted by his Anti-Corruption Foundation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged corruption practices.
The campaign slogan is a reference to an interview with Medvedev’s press secretary, where she condemned the use of the Russian hypocorism ‘Dimon’ when speaking about Medvedev on social media. Thus far, Mr Navalny’s strategy of using the fight against corruption as his main political objective has proven very successful. A majority of Russians think that corruption has significantly taken hold in the Russian government and the negative implications of corruption are felt by ordinary Russians on an everyday basis.
As a result, more and more people at least partly approve of Navalny’s political activism. Nonetheless, President Putin’s approval ratings continue to rest at around 80%. But by drawing attention not to President Putin, but to PM Medvedev, Navalny managed to take advantage of growing resentment against the political system and elite without attacking the popular president. By doing so, he undoubtedly hit a nerve and chose a more effective political strategy than other parts of the non-systemic political opposition.
In their coverage of the recent protests, many experts and media outlets emphasised the surprising number of young protesters, including university students as well as high school students like Danil. Concepts, such as ‘generation Putin’ or ‘protest generation’ have become popular among journalists and social scientists alike (see, for example The Telegraph). However, the question of whether this new generation of Russians born under Putin can indeed be seen as a homogeneous group that actively opposes the status quo remains largely unaddressed.
There is indeed a generational shift happening in Russia today. Young people are growing up with more freedom than previous generations. Born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they have no recollection of the instability and chaos of the Yeltsin regime. Collective memories of the immediate post-Soviet era, when the introduction of market reforms and privatisation led to a devastating economic collapse, have brought about broad scepticism towards Western interpretations of progress and democracy among older generations. Younger Russians have more than anyone benefited from the country’s increased standard of living. Their lives and ambitions are less affected by concerns about political and economic instability.
A second point that distinguishes the new generation from their parents and grandparents relates to their media consumption: young Russians watch TV less and less and instead rely on the internet for information and entertainment. State television channels are a crucial instrument for the Kremlin to maintain its power. But today television media is losing its influence, as 70 per cent of Russians prefer to use the internet. For young people, this figure is close to a 100 per cent.
In response to these developments, the Kremlin has intensified its efforts to manage online content by means of censorship and other repressive methods. Still, online and print media enjoy a far greater degree of freedom in terms of ownership structures and Kremlin-critical content. The internet offers an abundance of alternative media sources, including popular Riga-based online publication meduza.io and various types of social media. Meduza was founded by a group of Russian journalists who resigned their jobs at online newspaper Lenta.ru after its former editor-in-chief, Galina Timchenko, was unexpectedly fired by its Kremlin-loyal owner. The mobilisation of young people by Navalny can partly be explained by his presence and activity on social networks. He uses YouTube, tweets and blogs to reach new audiences and has thus managed to appeal to a lot of people without any media exposure on state television channels.
Russian state propaganda is therefore less effective in its influence over young people. The Kremlin’s preferred version of events and political developments now has to compete with an endless number of non-conforming sources of online information. It is clear that the times when political hegemony was only linked to control over the television media are long gone.
Anti-corruption rally in Saint Petersburg, 26 March, 2017. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.
Are young people in Russia becoming more political?
Throughout Russian history one principle has shaped politics: Russia is reformed from the top. It was President Putin who tackled the political instabilities of the Yeltsin era and instituted a system of state-controlled capitalism which guarantees some degree of prosperity in exchange for political loyalty. Grassroots movements are seen with utmost suspicion, not only by the political elite, but also large parts of society. People fear that sudden political change from below could lead to another period of instability, chaos and economic collapse.
But some urban Russians no longer seem to be willing to trade their political rights for economic stability. They demand more influence over political processes and are angry with an elite that is primarily concerned with enriching itself. This shows that some young Russians do indeed appear to be more political than their parents, and Mr Navalny’s increasing popularity undoubtedly reveals deeply rooted resentments among parts of the new generation of Russians.
But many Western observers fail to understand that political engagement among Russian youth has, thus far, not become the standard. Young Russians cannot be regarded a homogeneous group in opposition to the political elite. Empirical studies on the protest potential of the Russian youth suggest that a large majority of young Russians are still characterised by their political apathy.
Russian sociologist and expert at the country’s renowned independent research organisation Levada Center, Denis Volkov, paints a very different picture of Russian youth than his Western counterparts; although young Russians are less dependent on the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus, they are generally apolitical and opportunistic in playing by the rules of the current system. Volkov points out that in the many polls conducted by Levada Center, the new young generation of Russians does not significantly differ in their responses from other age groups. A majority of young Russians remain disinterested in the political processes of their country and focus on their own individualistic goals and ambitions. Plus, many young Russians believe that President Putin has been successful in restoring the country’s status as a global power and managed to tackle what is seen as Western attempts to meddle in Russian internal affairs under the guise of democracy and human rights.
Are political changes imminent?
In short: no, we should not expect macro-political changes in Russia any time soon. Despite the impressive scale of the recent protests, their significance and capability to change the Russian political system should not be overestimated.
The last round of mass protests in the country, between 2011 to 2013, has not resulted in any long-term political movements or changes. The government retaliated with repressive measures in form of a ruthless riot police, immediate arrests, biased media coverage that discredited protesters as well as new restrictive legislation.
On the other hand, some concessions to the protesters were granted: direct elections of regional governors were restored, the requirements for political parties to register for elections were made easier and there was some degree of decentralisation of resources to the local level. This shows that despite the lack of political plurality and repression of the opposition, the mechanisms of political accountability in Russia are not completely absent. Nonetheless, experts have argued that these concessions are merely cosmetic and non-credible with no effect in reality.
The Kremlin’s similarly brutal response to the recent protests and the barring of Mr Navalny from running for president in 2018 show that the political elite is worried about these new protest movements, primarily among young Russians. We can expect that the government will resort to more repressive measures in undermining non-systemic street protests and managing online content. Simultaneously, it will intensify its superficial attempts to tackle government corruption. It would also come as no surprise if unpopular politicians such as Prime Minister Medvedev would eventually have to resign as a concession to some of the protesters’ claims.
As such, the possibility of a student rebellion and regime change in Russia is relatively small. Although young people can play an important role in initiating protest movements, their concerns and ambitions have to eventually resonate with larger parts of society. Currently, older generations seem to downplay the significance of the protests, accusing the young protesters of youthful naivety and a failure to understand the complexity of Russian politics. So far, there is little indication to suggest political mobilisation across generations.
Although recurring protests could eventually force the Kremlin to make some more cosmetic changes to the present structure of Russian politics, large-scale political changes are not on the horizon: Navalny’s aim to enter mainstream politics seems unfeasible as long as both the political elite and a majority of Russian people believe that there is no real alternative to Putin.