Beginning in the fall of 2018, sociologists saw a sharp rise in social tensions in Russia, driven by price increases, unemployment and an economic crisis (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, September 6, 2018). Against the backdrop of ever harsher state repressions and restrictions on political activism (see EDM, July 9, 2021), this social stress has begun to manifest itself in irrational aggression, the growth of inter-ethnic conflicts, and even school shootings.
Over the past six months, there were three armed attacks by teenagers on educational institutions in Russia. In mid-May, Ilnaz Galyaviev staged a shooting in School No. 175, in Kazan, which resulted in the deaths of nine people (Kommersant, May 11). At the end of September, a student at Perm State University, Timur Bekmansurov, shot six people with a rifle at his college (Kommersant, September 20). And on October 18, a sixth grader armed with a carbine opened fire at a school in the village of Sars, in the Perm region. The principal of the school disarmed the boy before he could harm anyone (Kommersant, October 18).
The last couple of years have also seen a significant jump in the number of conflicts between residents of Russian regions and national diasporas. In the autumn of 2019, in the village of Chemodanovka, in Penzenskaya Oblast, a massive fight broke out between locals and representatives of the Roma (Gypsy) diaspora, after which several hundred Romas were forced to leave the village (BBC—Russian service, July 17, 2019). In November 2020, several dozen Russians were detained in the Bashkir settlement of Karmaskaly due to a conflict with a local Armenian diaspora community (Gazeta.ru, November 8, 2020). The accidental killing of Azerbaijani Vekil Abdullayev by an employee of the road-guard service in Novosibirsk this summer led to a serious confrontation between the Azerbaijani diaspora and the Russian police (MBK Media, June 3).
As noted above, there are socio-economic reasons for the growth in such social tensions. In this regard, Russia’s Economic Development Minister Maksim Reshetnikov admitted that the recovery potential of the Russian economy in 2021 has already been exhausted (TASS, October 18), which signals a further expected decline in living standards. And yet the authorities are responding to popular discontent in their usual way.
First, the state is tightening its repression and control over the virtual space (see EDM, September 7), forcing the most politically active Russians to emigrate. Simultaneously, the Kremlin is trying to attract loyal Russian-speaking compatriots to return from abroad (see EDM, September 21). In recent weeks, the director of the state-funded propaganda channel RT, Margarita Simonyan, has repeatedly called for easing the formal requirements placed on Russians wishing to come home. She openly said the main “virtue” of those desiring to return to Russia from the diaspora is their “active work in the Russian world” (Рolitnavigator.net, October 15). At the last meeting of the Valdai Club (see EDM, October 25), President Vladimir Putin also called for the liberalization of legislation on granting citizenship to such compatriots (Interfax, October 21).
These attempts to exchange opposition-minded Russians for loyal repatriates resembles the attempts to replace the indigenous population that Russia has carried out for several years in occupied Crimea (BBC—Russian service, November 29, 2017; see EDM, August 6, 2019) and Donbas (Dsnews.ua, July 27, 2020). However, statistics show that the number of those desiring to move abroad is considerably larger than the volume of immigrants to Russia (Russkiymir.ru, May 28, 2021).
Second, Russian propaganda is itself becoming more aggressive. Before, despite an abundance of militant statements, it was dominated by content aimed at discrediting the very understanding of objective truth. Now, the propaganda is intended to convince the populace that truth does exist but is solely represented by the official point of view. Anything that contradicts it is labeled as “information war” against Russia (YouTube, August 4). However, as demonstrated by data from the latest sociological poll, Russians are not inclined to fear “external enemies.” Quite the contrary, the respondents named the most acute problems as inflation (61 percent), poverty (36 percent), and corruption and bribery (33 percent) (Levada.ru, October 21).
Third, the Russian authorities are trying to assert complete control over the regional elites. At the end of September, in the State Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament), lawmakers introduced a bill that removes the two-term restriction on governors, allowing the loyal heads of Russian federal subjects to remain in power indefinitely. At the same time, any head of a region can be removed by the president, making this person exclusively dependent on the Kremlin (in today’s Russia, on President Vladimir Putin), without any responsibility to the local population (Interfax, September 27).
A more aggressive means of influencing regional governors suspected of disloyalty is criminal prosecution, most often over bribes and fraud (RBK, July 28, 2020). The Telegram channel “Nezygar,” which is close to the presidential office, recently published a report on the management activities of Russian governors, where it indicates that, at the moment, there are about 300 cases against top regional officials (Оreltimes.ru, October 21). The report also tries to measure the level of intra-elite tension in the regions, defining it as high in 27 out of 85 (this number includes occupied Crimea and Sevastopol).
Though it is tricky to evaluate the anonymous analysis of a Telegram channel, “Nezygar’s” published material clearly indicates that Moscow is paying increased attention to regional developments in the Russian Federation. The targets of such monitoring are, notably, the “problematic” governors capable of undermining the faith of citizens in the federal center. Ultimately, the Kremlin is trying to prevent the formation of any strong regional elites and avoid another situation like what occurred in Khabarovsk, which exploded in mass demonstrations last summer, in support of arrested popular governor Sergei Furgal (see EDM, July 20, 2020 and August 3, 2020). Such measures may lead to a temporary decrease in protest activity, but they likely cannot prevent spontaneous manifestations of discontent.