Protests in Russia may show more than what we're ready to see

Protests in Russia may show more than what we're ready to see
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Once again, Russia is in the news this summer: Peaceful protests in Moscow and now other cities are swelling up, met with unprecedented brutality by the Russian security services. And yet, bearing witness to the unfolding events makes it easy to fall into the trap of our own misunderstandings about the country. And it matters that we get it right — what happens in Russia impacts us directly — the collapse of the country’s democratic institutions and rights in the past 20 years has resulted in a completely unanticipated challenge to our own democracy, not to mention to the nascent democracies in countries closer to Russia.

Protests in Moscow have been ongoing since July 14, against the decision of elections officials to reject 57 opposition candidates from competing in elections for the Moscow City Duma, despite their having surmounted a series of unreasonable bureaucratic registration hurdles. Nearly 60,000 people participated in the August 10 rally alone. While much media attention has been devoted to the capitol, analogous protests occurred in over 40 Russian cities.  

The U.S. debate about what's happening in Russia has been based on a number of assumptions. First, that the pre-election protests rely on a single leader — the daring anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny — and that we should support him if we want positive change in the country. The truth is that Navalny isn't even running; it is the more than a dozen opposition candidates of various political backgrounds who've been denied access to the ballot. Second, even the candidates themselves have been unable to lead the protests; most of them have been placed in detention or otherwise prevented from joining the rallies.

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The fact that the protests still happened shows a level of coordination among opposition groups — and the effectiveness of their joint messaging — that we haven't seen in Russia at least since the early 1990s. Moreover, it shows that for some reason the authorities have hit a nerve that Muscovites, and increasingly others around the country, are reacting to.  

For the first time in years, the assumption of Putin’s full control over the situation in Russia is being tested. Recent events demonstrate that the Kremlin is misreading the street, indicating that the social contract that has kept the regime in power for 20 years may be changing or has been broken without the population, the pundits or the Kremlin taking notice.

Earlier this summer, the public outcry against the arrest of the journalist Ivan Golunov based on planted drugs comes to mind, or recent outrage over the use of torture in Russia. There seems to be a line that the state is more and more frequently crossing that is mobilizing Russian citizens — and it all concerns impunity for violence, the loss of personal security vis a vis the state and with the Moscow election protests, the perception that the state is denying individuals’ very existence by telling people that they don’t have the right to even validate their own signatures.

These events challenge the social contract where the public tacitly accepted a level of corruption and authoritarianism in exchange for stability, security and economic improvements. These repeated, blatant denials of human security are shaking people to the core.

Another development regards the unprecedented overreaction of the state to dissent. Why are the security services using brute force against the protesters, in ways not seen before or threatening protesters with multi-year prison terms for “fomenting unrest”? Why does Putin tolerate Ramzan Kadyrov’s outrages in Chechnya, which get worse year by year? The state’s argument has always been that it must impose order to provide stability, but the current overreaction to peaceful protest is in itself destabilizing.

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When the 1975 Helsinki Final Act codified that democratic freedoms and the protection of rights were a mutual security concern, diplomats and pundits winked and nodded, believing that the essence of the deal was, as always, all about hard security. Now the proof of this idea is before our very eyes, with Russia’s collapse into authoritarianism spilling over, through meddling in our elections, promoting discord and division across the Atlantic and undermining the European project.

If there is one thing we should get right about Russia, it's this: Putin's regime tests its authoritarian methods on its own people first, while no one cares to look or catch it in the act — and then exports them abroad to undermine democratic reforms in countries like Georgia, Ukraine or Moldova or to undermine confidence in and commitment to democratic ideals in established democracies. Just as Mr. Putin has been misreading the mood of Russian society, we are in danger of misreading the situation ourselves.

Marc Behrendt is the Director for Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House.

Sofya Orlosky is a senior program manager at Freedom House. Prior to joining Freedom House she was based in Moscow, with various local Russian NGOs and later with the National Democratic Institute for International Relations, designing and conducting immersion trainings for civic activists, local government officials and political party members on various aspects of civic engagement and political participation. Follow her on Twitter @smorlosky