ussia has been experiencing a fresh wave of tumult over the past weekend as a protest rally took place on Saturday about upcoming Moscow municipal elections. The Russian authorities banned over a dozen candidates from participating in the September elections and alleged that numerous signatures to qualify for the ballot were forged. Over 1,300 demonstrators were arrested and opposition leader Alexei Navalny hospitalized on Sunday; his lawyer is stating that Navalny was poisoned while imprisoned.
What are the implications of the protests and the elections? Does the Russian government face mounting opposition to its rule? What is Russian president Vladimir Putin contemplating as he confronts new parliamentary elections in 2021?
To answer such questions, National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn turned to Konstantin Remchukov, an authority on Russian politics and the proprietor and editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an influential daily newspaper. He is also the chairman of the Moscow Public Chamber, a top advisory body to the city government. You can follow him at: @KVRemchukov.
Remchukov describes himself on Twitter in the following terms: “My own views and opinions. Imposed by no one but my life experience/interests.”
Jacob Heilbrunn: How significant were the demonstrations in Moscow on Saturday about the Moscow municipal elections?
Konstantin Remchukov: They were significant. Several thousand people protested. But, from my point of view, the most significant thing that I could see this time was that those young people who came out on the street were absolutely fearless. It was the first time that I saw people who did not care about whether or not they would be taken into custody or arrested by the police. This is new–that people go out, and that they believe that standing for their positions—especially moral positions—was more important than anything else. And it is a very, very stark shift in the mood of this young generation.
Heilbrunn: To what do you ascribe this shift? Why has it occurred?
Remchukov: It has occurred more systemically. Recent public opinion polls and research show that over the last year several fundamental changes have taken place in Russian life. For example, one year ago in March, when they re-elected President Putin, the material demands of people were a top priority in the Russian Federation. And if you look today–in spring 2019–then it is not material things but the demand for freedom that is paramount. In my view, this shift is quite amazing.
When asked, 59 percent responded “no limitations on personal freedom” versus a good economic situation. That was their number one concern. Nor is this all. Another thing which is very interesting is that according to the polls, 84 percent of Russians say they want to personally contribute to the improvement of the situation of the country. We’ve never had such a mood.
We’ve all heard about the inclusive democracy, but now 84 percent of people say they want it–and believe that they can make a difference if they participate in political life. Now, eight out of ten people believe something depends on us. Eight out of ten people are ready to wait for a good five years until the situation improves, but on the condition that they understand what kind of changes will be implemented.
Before that, people didn’t want to pick a fight for any reform for any improvement—they said, in effect, “no, no, no, we don’t trust reforms. Give us our sausages, our material things.” And now they say, “ok if I understand what is going to happen, I am willing to suffer five years if those good things will happen.” So this is a new thing for Russia.
Then there’s the factor of Crimea. For so many years, what I call the Crimea factor determined the mood of the Russian people. And now, most of the people—those in focus groups—would say that Crimea, the Olympic Games in Sochi, and the World Cup last year ultimately did not have a substantial impact on their lives.
In the last three or four months, for the first time, we in Moscow really can see what being middle-class means. For so many years we have heard about the middle-class and its role in the life of a modern society, but nobody knew what that was. And everybody in their research groups underlined the material factor—how much money the middle-class earned.
It is the responsible class. It is the class that cares about the future, the future of their children, it doesn’t avoid responsibility, it less dependent on government assistance and government money. And it appears that the government doesn’t know how to react to the demand of the middle-class to participate in determining how Russia should be governed.
Heilbrunn: So, when you say the government doesn’t know how to react, it seems the interpretation by many here in the United States has been that the Kremlin is now demonstrating that it is willing to use force in a much more lethal fashion. Is that interpretation correct?
Remchukov: No. When I say that the government doesn’t know how to react, I’m more inclined to say the following: the middle class of today is very much integrated into social media. Social media—the platform of spreading information, spreading values, goals, and examples of how other countries live—requires immediate reaction of all parties involved in this exchange of opinion. And a feature of government in Russia–especially under Russian president Vladimir Putin who is a secret agent who doesn’t like to speak and who doesn’t like people who speak–is that there are not a lot of talkative people around here.
The government manipulates the television with the emphasis on their major voters, who are dependent upon television–instead of reading the paper and social media. On television, the government uses the language of propaganda.
But the language of propaganda does not work on social media. Take the reaction for two or three years when there was a scandal with a documentary film about Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s alleged acts that was disseminated by opposition activist Alexei Navalny. The principal decision of the authorities was not to raise this problem on television. That meant that 25-30 million people watched the film on the internet. But the government said: “OK, let those 25-30 million now know what happened, but the 110-120 million people who didn’t watch online will not see or hear anything on television.” And that worked. A lot of people didn’t know about that documentary and afterward, elections went ahead, and the scandal went away.
And they maybe thought that this approach—not to bring up problems which are burning for people—is a universal mechanism of how they could react to anything. When they tried this approach to the elections in Moscow, it appears that they miscalculated. That if signatures of thousands of people were not counted by the election committee, it touches not some moral thing–like the claim Medvedev did this or that–but it touched the middle class’ interests. This is because the middle class, the responsible class that wanted to participate in the elections, wanted to shape the government and parliament. And the government, the central authorities, they didn’t know how to deal with that.
They were silent on television. But they did not enforce silence on the internet. They didn’t develop the technology or communications to respond. They didn’t develop their own speakers or a message. So the government tried to be silent. That approach worked two years ago, but it didn’t work today because people communicated and they don’t see anyone online or on television who stood up for the government position. The government should have come up with some rational arguments about why it discarded so many signatures and should prove it. They should come out on television and on the internet and show the pages where the false signatures were collected. But they don’t do that and, of course, this approach is obsolete. They can’t come up with the right language to communicate and deal with the new middle class.
Heilbrunn: Would these developments prompt you to say that Russia is in a state resembling 1905, when a constitutional revolution took place?
Remchukov: Not at all. I think that the situation has changed very much. I think, first of all, unlike the previous cases like 1905, 1917, 1991, today there is no deficit of day-to-day goods for people’s lives. This is because huge, private capital changed this sphere called personal consumption. So there’s no deficit and when there is one, people are inclined to protest against power in huge numbers.
Many say that at the end of February 1917, when there was a shortage of bread in St. Petersburg the people came out into the streets on the first day it was warm and then the February revolution took place. But their reasons were very material—no bread, no butter, no food, no shoes—and, now, their reasons are not. So the basis of Russia’s economy has changed fundamentally.
Number two factor, we have a very strong ruble. Every time there is a revolution there was also the so-called “paper ruble”—a ruble that was worth nothing. Now the ruble is one of the strongest currencies in the world and Europe.
Number three, there is a top, elite club. The nomenklatura is the class that determines everything. They had fought for power and they had that power but then a revolution changed that and they disappeared. Now, the nomenklatura has both power and huge economic assets: banks, airplanes, financial assets. So I can’t imagine that these people will just disappear like before. They will defend their assets and themselves because they cannot flee the country since most of them are on sanctions lists. Nobody will allow them to leave so they have to stay in Russia and keep their power.
Heilbrunn: So what’s the future? If you look at the opinion polls, Putin’s popularity has diminished. There is the restiveness that you’ve talked about in the middle-class. The situation seems to be, if not revolutionary, then at least unstable. What does this imply for Putin’s future tenure as the head of the state?
Remchukov: His key concern now—and, actually, this question has emerged in this year’s elections for the Moscow Duma—is about the elections of 2021 for the Russian State Duma. This is because, since 2003, Putin has led with a constitutional majority in parliament. I don’t understand now how they can sustain a majority in the State Duma in 2021, which is essential for the future of Putin.
This is because only constitutional changes could give him a place on top of the hierarchy— whatever the name of the country. For instance, Russia could combine with Belarus. Then he could serve as the president of that newly united country. Some other options might be to create a brand new political body that he heads such as a state council, whereby he again becomes the Prime Minister and parliament will have the right to determine who will be ministers—not merely approve nominees like it currently does. Such a move would allow Putin to diminish the next president’s power. But these scenarios would be feasible only if they have control of parliament, and the diminishing role of the ruling United Russia party means they will need to elect maybe 75 percent of the members of parliament elected in individual districts.
So I think Putin–or Putin’s political technocrats–are now thinking about this situation and about how to make legal preconditions legitimate for his continuation in power. This is about how to make it look like a transition. In reality, it would not be one.
Legitimacy is the key for Putin as he will try to do this formally within the frame of the law. But that is difficult, because in many regions if you represent an elite, you are challenged right away. So we saw a case in Siberia where the challenger was a housewife who won and now she is the mayor. And how to control it? The government doesn’t have an answer, because as I told you, they don’t have the advantage of good communications with people now.
Heilbrunn: Is it fair to say that Russia is starting to experience an upsurge in the same anti-elite sentiment that is prevalent in Western Europe and the United States? That elites are seen as exploitative and not working in the true interests of the country?
Remchukov: Yes, I think that a counter-elite sentiment is beginning to develop. It is counter-elite because people start to believe all elites only care about themselves and not the people. A specific feature of Russian protests now is that they are not organized by political forces. Think about the people who had the problem of poor garbage collection in Moscow and now this year it is about garbage in other cities. Or it is about the churches and parks for people. Or now people talk about the fires in Siberia where apparently the government does not have the intention to fight those fires. And these are civil society protests.
In fact, political parties were left behind this time–so it is not clear to me which party could become the leader and win all of these protestors. This is because these sorts of protests—for clean air or good water or their right to decide to have a park or a church—are beyond party lines. These needs are very human. And so, at this stage, it is, for me at least, difficult to say which party will capture these sentiments, but the Russian people want more and more involvement in all decisions affecting their lives.
Heilbrunn: Do you believe that the response of the Putin regime leading up to the 2021 elections will be to become increasingly autocratic?
Remchukov: I don’t think it is going to get autocratic because it is not sustainable and people understand that. I know the people who make those decisions and they don’t seem that primitive. I think the problem is certain communications within the elite groups in power because any analysis of their initial motivations is becoming more and more difficult.
For example, you might talk for many years about certain Kremlin factions: there are liberals, there are people close to Putin, there are those who are not democratic, and so forth. In my view, it is not enough to talk about the power of those who are personal friends of Putin. It is necessary to look at who is a close friend and who stands behind this or that political move. These moves tend to generate a lot of protests and uncertainty because it is not transparent why someone was changed and what was being done. People who are at this moment in the Kremlin when we’re talking, do not understand how the public in Russia is changing. I don’t think they understand, because I don’t see an adequate reaction.
They think they can handle things in their old-fashioned, customary manner–pouring money into St. Petersburg, building new streets, new subways, and new shopping malls. But is it adequate for the middle class? Because the case in Moscow shows that good streets, fantastic infrastructure, public places, cannot keep them safe from the lure of democracy. And people protest anyway.
A lot depends on if the elite being able to understand how to talk with these people. They do not necessarily need an overwhelming majority to run the country like in the old Soviet days. No, democracy means that you simply have support—maybe by even one vote. And you see in America how you handle a difficult political situation after three years of Trump being elected—he clashes with Congress.
Here’s the deal: if Russian elites want to sustain their power, they need to develop this language of the simple majority rather than an overwhelming majority. The economic issues are very serious and Russian real income hasn’t grown in five years. If statistics show that real income is still not growing, then it will be very difficult to find a new Crimea to conquer to boost the spirits of the people. As I’ve mentioned, this Crimea factor, these Olympics and World Cup factors, these are diminishing in the minds of the Russian people. It will be increasingly difficult to ignore the demands of Russia’s middle-class and young.
Heilbrunn: Thank you for the interview.