Poverty and Passivity: Are New Protests Expected in the Russian Regions?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 38

Khabarovsk protesters demonstrate in support of arrested governor Sergei Furgal (Source: RIA Novosti)

On January 2, Russian media quietly reported that, “in Khabarovsk [Russian Far East], unsanctioned actions in support of former Governor Sergei Furgal came to an end” (RIA Novosti, January 2). The referenced “unsanctioned actions” refer to the mass rallies that occurred regularly since July of last year, occasioned by the arrest of Khabarovsk Krai regional governor Furgal. The demonstrations became the most persistent protests in the history of modern Russia (see EDM, July 20, 2020, August 3, 2020, August 4, 2020).

In fact, information that the rallies have stopped is not quite accurate. In January and February of 2021, protest activity in Khabarovsk has continued, albeit in a more veiled form. And amidst the protests in defense of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, it temporarily reappeared with new force, combining demands for the release of Navalny as well as Furgal. The authorities’ response to the demands was repression, detaining not only actual participants in the protests but journalists as well (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, February 13). Following this crackdown, street protests by locals sharply declined. However, this does not mean that rallies in Khabarovsk and other Russian region will not be ignited anew in the near future.

At the start of March, the Investigative Committee of Russia demanded that the court extend the arrest of Sergei Furgal until June 8 (Rosbalt, March 1). Should the court approve this petition, such a decision could provoke a new wave of protests. Moreover, Russian analysts predict looming arrests of several other governors in the context of Moscow’s declared battle against corruption. Political analyst Pavel Salin noted that the authorities have begun implementing a strategy of neutralizing the “Navalny factor” by, among other means, taking advantage of the anti-corruption agenda (DVHAB.RU, February 24). If this prediction is correct and, under the pretext of fighting corruption, the Kremlin attempts to settle accounts with popular governors suspected of disloyalty, those actions may well provoke new regional protest actions similar to what occurred in Khabarovsk.

At the same time, depressed economic standards and the socio-economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic have laid the groundwork for growing discontent. According to a study by the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics, last year the collective deficit of Russia’s regional budgets reached 677 billion rubles ($9.09 billion), the highest level in 14 years. Of the Russian Federation’s 85 constituent entities (this number includes the illegally annexed Crimean republic and federal city of Sevastopol), 57 ended the last fiscal year with a deficit; in 2018, only 15 federal subjects had budgets running in the red (Hse.ru, February 25). In 2020, this troubled fiscal situation was partially offset by financial subsidies from Moscow; but this year, the federal center decided to cut such transfers by 25 percent. Consequently, experts predict a decrease in regional incomes despite the federal entities’ costs remaining at the heightened level from 2020, which was caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the need to support the population and business (Profile.ru, March 1).

Higher food prices were a clear manifestation of the crisis. According to data released by the Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat), over the course of 2020, food prices rose 7.9 percent, and in the first two months of this year—another 1.2 percent (MBK Media, March 2). The growth in prices affected predominantly staples like vegetables, chicken and fish. Under these circumstances, by the end of 2020, several Russian experts recommended the introduction of coupons for free bread, milk, and sugar for the poorest people (Gazeta.ru, December 20, 2020). Deputies of the Novosibirsk City Council came up with a similar idea. If their initiative is approved, ration cards could appear in the city later this year (AiF-Novosibirsk, February 11, 2021).

Russian analysts have noted that, besides as a result of the health crisis, food cost increases were also exacerbated by the monopolization of markets, less demand from lower-income people, and government attempts to regulate prices. However, some Russian economists are uncertain as to whether inflation and shortages of goods will lead to mass unrest. Doctor of Economic Sciences Yevgeniy Gontmakher, for instance, has pointed out that Russians tend to come out into the streets in sizeable numbers mainly out of political rather than socio-economic reasons (MBK Media, March 2).

Yet besides economic difficulties, the Russian regions face a series of other problems. After the adoption, in 2017, of the new law on education, which abolished the compulsory study of the state language of the republics, the study of those native non-Russian languages sharply decreased. In Chuvashia, the percentage of children learning the Chuvash language at school has almost halved (from 100 to 55 percent). A similar situation is developing in Tatarstan and Udmurtia, which causes some discontent among supporters of the development of national culture (Idel.Realii, February 26).

Ecological protests also persist in several Russian regions (7×7 Journal, February 26) but are repeatedly met with crackdowns. Regional correspondents report that even an attempt to present a petition to the governor of Kostroma Oblast to stop construction of a nine-story building over a grove holding back unstable soil resulted in arrests (7×7 Journal, March 1). Last October, the suicide of opposition journalist Irina Slavina highlighted that Russian law enforcement responds with repression against any civil activity, be it in defense of city parks, opposition to illegal construction, or against local corruption. In the words of Nizhny Novgorod activist Dmitry Silivonchik, the response of the authorities to acts similar to those of Slavina and other activists is fines, searches, and slanderous articles in the local media (Free Russia Forum, October 7, 2020).

Regional commentators also point out that the basic problem in the interaction of the authorities and the public is the absence of two-way communication. Even at the lowest local level, there is often no mechanism for people to effectively influence management decisions and explain their needs, nor is there even a means to convey the will of the people on certain issues. Protest is frequently the only way the people can be heard, but the government prefers to respond to street actions with suppression and aggressive propaganda campaigns.

The government’s goal is social passivity—the elimination of any political or social agitation. The authorities do not encourage any associations of civic initiatives, fearing that such groupings could, in the future, become the driving force behind more large-scale and organized protests (7×7 Journal, February 26). Russian experts admit that the absence of civil society significantly reduces the potential for popular protest in the country. And yet, growing problems, together with increasing demand for change, may sooner or later replace social passivity with active discontent.