Putin Generation finds its voice in anti-corruption protests


In Russia’s once-quiet provinces, young people took the lead in last weekend’s anti-corruption protests, AP reports. According to user data compiled from a social media page for people who said they planned to attend Sunday’s protest in St Petersburg, more than one in six were aged under 21, Reuters adds:

Putin came to power after the 1990s, when the Soviet Union disintegrated and millions found themselves destitute. But young people who do not remember those times have different priorities than those even a few years older, said Yekaterina Schulmann, a political analyst.

“Our political regime is fixated on what it calls stability, that is a lack of change,” she said. “The political machine believes the best offer it can make to society is ‘Let’s keep everything the way it is for as long as possible’.”

“Young people need a model of the future, clear prospects, rules of the game which they recognise as fair, and … a social leg-up. Not only do they not see any of that, no one is even talking about it,” said Schulmann.

Come next year’s presidential election, many of the young people who took to the streets on Sunday will be of voting age. As members of the generation that knows nothing but Putin, the Kremlin was counting on their support, notes analyst Ola Cichowlas:

But “the Kremlin does not know how to deal with young people,” said sociologist Denis Volkov, from Moscow’s independent pollster Levada Centre. And on Monday, still reeling from having been caught off guard, it may have made a misstep that alienated young people still further: Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested youth had been bribed into taking part in the protest.

For the first time, a generation that was born after the fall of the Soviet Union — a generation that has no personal experience of totalitarian rule — came out to demonstrate, notes Yevgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based independent weekly New Times, and author of The State Within a State: KGB and Its Hold on Russia — Past, Present, and Future.”

This generation doesn’t watch the Russian propaganda channels that tell of the great Putin and the horrible West. Its members live on social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Vkontakte and YouTube, she writes for The Washington Post:

It was on YouTube that they watched an investigative film by Alexei Navalny, the founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s sumptuous villas, located on the banks of the Volga River, in the holiday resort of Sochi and even in Italy. The film described vineyards owned by certain charitable funds run by Medvedev’s childhood friends. It showed us the incredible luxury of the prime minister’s homes, surrounded by impoverished Russian villages.

Young Russians took to the streets because “they are not part of the system,” said political analyst Mariya Snegova.

“They are angry with the system and, unlike their parents, have nothing to lose,” she said. Snegova added that young people are not satisfied with the stagnation in a society where old politicians are leading the country “in a vague direction and nothing changes.” However, she believes that Navalny’s video about Medvedev was simply a symbol of a broader protest movement. “All the slogans at the rallies were against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Snegova said. “It was the system against which they protested.”

This is a state that…. has nothing to offer its youth apart from a patriotism limited to loyal applause and militarized youth groups, analyst Ivan Davydov writes for Open Democracy:

The state’s ideological field is bare but for a picture of Soviet man that’s been painted in the red, white and blue of the Russian tricolour. And this ideology is doubly false, because it’s not the idealists who are asking people to love this country and, if needs be, die for it, but corrupt officials and thieves with their yachts, collections of trainers, palaces and villas. To force children to consume all of this is far from easy, no matter how much money you assign to “proper youth policy”. RTWT

A new movement was born in Russia on Sunday, the generation of fourteen to twenty year olds, which was too young to remember the Bolotnaya protests, notes Natalia Arno, the president of the Free Russia Foundation in Washington, DC. They didn’t care that rallies in most cities were not authorized, which usually frightens people off, she writes for the Atlantic Council.

Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst, agreed that Navalny had scored a “serious success” by pulling off rallies in dozens of cities “despite the bans and arrests,” The Washington Post reports. He also noted that many participants were younger than the people who usually show up at demonstrations.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political strategist, called the protesters “Putin’s children,” the beneficiaries of and now a significant threat to the years of stability and relative prosperity of Mr. Putin’s rule, The NY Times adds:

In an audio recording posted online that infuriated many young people and drove them to join the protests, a provincial school director can be heard harshly lecturing students before the demonstrations on why they must not attend. In the past, the Kremlin has been highly skillful at channeling the energy of young Russians away from opposition political activism into a pro-Putin youth movement called Nashi (left) and other patriotic ventures.

But in recent years the government had largely withdrawn support for pro-Putin youth movements, leaving the authorities without the ability to stage counterprotests, said Aleksei A. Chesnakov, the director of the Center for Current Policy and a former Kremlin official who advised the president on domestic politics.

Gazeta.ru reported that many young people, even schoolchildren, participated in the rallies, MEMRI adds:

According to the media outlet, hitherto Russian youth were dismissed as a political force. The Russian authorities neglected the new Russian generation due to their general perception that the Russian youth were apathetic about politics, abstained from participation in the political process and were generally content with their life styles.

The protests appear to validate recent research which suggests that Russia’s youth are ‘really different’ than their parents, analyst Paul Goble reports.

The protests show that Navalny has a chance to thaw Russia’s frozen political horizons and show that a post-Putin era would, at least some day, be possible, said Samuel A. Greene, an expert on Russian protest movements at King’s College London.

“People—both in the Kremlin and the 80 percent or so who tell pollsters they support Putin—have all been acting for years on the assumption that the ice is very thick and will never break. What Navalny is trying to do is show that it is not, and will one day crack,” Mr. Greene said. “Once people begin to believe the ice is in fact thin, it doesn’t matter how thick it really is, and everything can change very suddenly.”

Civil Society Perspectives on Russia is the subject of a hearing by the Senate Appropriations — Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, featuring:

  • Vladimir Kara-Murza (above), vice chairman of Open Russia
  • Laura Jewett, regional director of Eurasia programs at the National Democratic Institute
  • Jan Erik Surotchak, regional director of Europe at the International Republican Institute

NDI and IRI are core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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