Causes and Consequences of Mass Protests in Russia
On 8 of September, Muscovites will be electing members of Moscow City Duma, a regional parliament, an election which is likely to be deemed illegitimate. Currently, the majority in the Duma is being held by the representative of the pro-government United Russia Party. Authorities have barred many opposition candidates from running for the election, and the decision was met with mass public dissatisfaction and widespread protests. The reason for such unreasonable measure is dubious; however, public dissatisfaction and underperforming economy could be the answer. The summer in Moscow saw the biggest protests since the demonstration in the winter of 2011-2012 following the election in the Russian State Duma. The consequences, however, of the protests are likely to be stricter and more authoritarian laws targeting foreign NGOs and civil liberties.
Authorities have unreasonably barred about 30 independent candidates from running for the elections. They alleged that the independent opposition candidates failed to gather enough signatures in their constituencies to register as election candidate, similarly as in previous Moscow City Duma elections in 2014. However, this is the first time authorities have barred so many opposition candidates from running for elections. At the same time, most pro-government candidates have successfully been registered without any significant scrutiny. It is questionable as to why they would prevent so many candidates from running, and whether the opposition posed a threat of winning the seats. An opinion poll by the Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (WCIOM) showed that opposition candidates are unlikely to win seats (WCIOM, 2019), making the authorities’ response dubious. Perhaps, the authorities’ perspective on allowing independent candidates to run for election has shifted after the opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, has come second in the Moscow Mayor elections in 2013, gaining 27 percent. The growing public dissatisfaction with the government policies and underperforming economy could make the threat of opposition leaders winning seats in the Moscow City Duma increasingly real.
The effects of low oil prices in 2015-2016 coupled with sanctions against Russia over its involvement in Ukraine conflict, could still be felt in Russia. The economy growth has slowed—in the first quarter of 2019, it grew by only 0.5 percent against 1-1.5 percent as forecasted by the Central Bank (Rosstat, 2019). According to a Russian economist, it is on the verge of recession (Lomskaya, 2019), with real earnings decreasing since 2014: in the first quarter of 2019, they fell by 1.3 percent (Rosstat, 2019). Prices for food, on the other hand, are increasing: in the first quarter of 2019, it increased by 3.4 percent compared to 1.7 percent increase in the EU (Lenta, 2019). The state of the Russian economy is affecting the Russian people, and this breeds dissatisfaction, providing an opportunity for the opposition to win a substantial number of votes.
Whatever are the authorities’ reasons for preventing opposition candidates from running for the elections, such violation of civil liberties was met with mass protests. The protests in Moscow this summer gathered tens of thousands of people, with the largest number of people taking to the streets on 10 of August 2019—around 60,000 (Kaganskikh, 2019). The last similar large-scale protests were in the winter of 2011-2012, which saw between 60,000 (Savina et al., 2011) and 120,000 (Gazeta, 2012) protestors. The consequences of those protests were curtailments of civil liberties as Russia’s most repressive laws restricting human rights were adopted as a result of them. A law restricting foreign NGO’s work in Russia, as well as censorship in the internet and law restricting people’s right to protests, were introduced (FIDH, 2019). The recent protests in Moscow have also seen perhaps unprecedented levels of police brutality in Russia’s post-Soviet history with over a thousand of protestors arrested and some are already getting prison sentences. Such unreasonable response marks a shift towards greater authoritarianism, and it did not go unnoticed in the US. On 5 of September, two Congressmen, Eliot Engel and Michael McCaul, have asked President Trump to impose targeted sanctions, under the Magnitsky Act, on individuals responsible for police brutality during the protests (Engel and McCaul, 2019).
If such sanctions are to be adopted, they are unlikely to affect the state economy directly. However, sanctions coupled with mass protests could increase the anti-Western rhetoric among policy-makers; it could lead to greater state isolation and increasingly restrictive and authoritarian policies preventing people from criticising the government. Authorities could also adopt more restrictive policies targeting foreign NGOs to minimize the “external influence.” Some MPs have already proposed a bill to make protests more challenging to organize, and an increasing number of such restrictive laws are likely to be introduced in the future. The risk of such measures is increased if further protests following the elections on the 8 of September take place.
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