Russia’s ‘surreal’ protests show fraying of social contract



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The latest wave of protests in Russia is too diverse and divergent to be unified by a single political leader, platform, or slogan—though there is one motto that people with all kinds of political views can get behind, a message for the president himself: “Enough, already!” Carnegie analyst Andrei Kolesnikov writes:

The latest wave isn’t capable of regime change; it isn’t a color or velvet revolution; and it isn’t a perestroika-scale movement. However, the current protests are expanding in geographic scope. They are being triggered by more and more conflicts and becoming more politicized, even though many initiatives seek only to compel the authorities to resolve pragmatic issues. Most importantly, these protests are all about injustice—they concern ethics.

One reason for the unrest is economic, The Economist notes:

Russian real incomes have fallen by 13% over the past two and a half years, reaching the level of 2009. Retail consumption has shrunk by 15%. Investment has been falling for three years, reaching a cumulative decline of 12%. Natalia Zubarevich, an expert on Russia’s regions, says economic factors are amplified by frustration with the lack of political freedom and official hypocrisy.

Kremlin ‘desperate for narrative’

With Monday’s “surreal” protests, Alexei Navalny undermined the Kremlin’s narrative of control, said analyst Arkady Ostrovsky.

The FT’s Max Seddon reported that of the 658 people detained by the police at the St. Petersburg march, 137 of them were under the age of 18. The evocative pictures of tiny teenage girls being carried off by groups of men in riot gear certainly do not help the Kremlin’s image, the Hudson Institute’s Hannah Thoburn writes for World Affairs. In a short period, Generation Putin has shown itself to be savvy with modern technology and seem far more connected to the world than their elders. Mr. Putin and his Kremlin may be soon surprised by a very modern kind of trouble, notes Thoburn, a Penn-Kemble fellow with the National Endowment for Democracy.

The protests also indicate a fraying of the authoritarian docility-for-prosperity social contract, argues Kolesnikov:

The first version of the social contract—that citizens stay out of politics in return for a share of oil revenues—worked flawlessly. The second version—that citizens stay out of politics in return for Russia’s renewed great-power status—was fueled by the March 2014 annexation of Crimea and enthusiasm for the construction of Russia as a besieged fortress with elements of Stalinist architecture.

Russians increasingly feel that they are more than holding up their side of the social contract. In surveys conducted by the Levada Center in April 2017, 53 percent of respondents said that they were fulfilling their obligations to the state by paying taxes and following the law, compared with 39 percent in 2001. A different survey in March 2017 showed that 31 percent of respondents felt that citizens received so little from the state that they owed it nothing. Others said that they could demand more from the state; this category has grown from 25 percent in March 2016 to 32 percent in March 2017.

“The Kremlin is desperately searching for a narrative that Mr Putin can sell to the electorate next year,” the Economist notes. “Some hope to present him as an elder statesman in the mould of Deng Xiaoping, overseeing reforms while suppressing dissent. But whereas the regime’s ability to reform is doubtful, its ability to use force is not.”

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