March 23, 2017

The Growth of the Protest Potential in the Russian Society as the Beginning of the End of V. Putin's Regime

Ivan Sichen, Military and Political Expert

Western economic sanctions have recently had a tangible impact on the development of the domestic situation in Russia. First of all, tensions in Russian society are increasing, gradually shifting from the socio-economic to the political plane.

As part of this process, along with the increasing activity of the liberal-democratic opposition to the Putin regime, in particular, the PARNAS, “Other Russia”, “Open Russia”, “Progress”, and other parties, mass, more effective protest movements of workers of various branches of the Russian economy are being formed. Most of these movements were created as economic ones, but today they have also political demands — the change of local authorities and resignation of the government. These movements and organizations include: the Russian Association of Carriers, Interregional Trade Union of Professional Drivers, Association “Dalnoboyshchik” (“Trucker”), “Polite Farmers”, Association of Coal Industry Workers of the Southern Regions of Russia.

Some national and patriotic organizations of Russia, which are well aware of the danger of the Kremlin's policy for the Russian Federation, also raise their voice against the Putin regime.

Other political opposition forces are also becoming active, including the so-called “New Opposition”,whichadvocates restoration of civil liberties in Russia, while uniting activists of different orientation — from liberals to nationalists. At this, the leaders of the “New Opposition” recognize the impossibility of a change of power in Russia through elections and are trying to create conditions for a “democratic revolution” in the country according to the scenario of the Ukrainian “Maydan” of 2014.

Since the second half of 2016, the most resonant actions of such political forces have been: pickets and protests of miners in a number of cities in Rostov region of the Russian Federation (caused by non-payment of wages due to the bankruptcy of the coal company “Kingcoal”); attempts to organize a march on Moscow and blocking roads by Russian truckers' associations (in protest against increasing taxes for using roads); protests of farmers in the Stavropol and Krasnodar Territories (in response to the oppression of their rights); hunger strike of workers in the metallurgical industry of Ural region (due to constant delays in wages).

At the same time, there are also purely political actions against V. Putin's regime. Thus, on 5 November, 2016 (immediately after the pro-government Day of the People's Unity of Russia), an alternative “Russian march” was held in Moscow under the slogans “Russia without Putin”, “Putin is a betrayer of the Motherland and the enemy of the Russian people”, “Enough of the Russian world's wars”, “Russia should mind its own business and stop conflicts with the West, the United States and fraternal Ukraine”, and others.

Another mass action in the center of Moscow with participation of up to 15 thousand people took place on 27 February, 2017. It was dedicated to the memory of the opposition politician B. Nemtsov (killed 2 years ago). The protesters condemned the Kremlin's policy, including for oppressing democracy in Russia, the war against Ukraine and confrontation with the West.

 

Now the leaders of the protest movement are preparing more large-scale actions. This refers to the transition from meetings to blocking roads and protests, as it was observed in the 1990s. This has been caused by the increased social tensions in Russia due to a sharp reduction in the government's social spending (by 40–50 %), tax increases, rising tariffs for utilities and other informal fees from the population and entrepreneurs to fill the state budget of the Russian Federation.

Thus, according to the decision of the Association of Carriers of Russia, the Interregional Trade Union of Professional Drivers and the Dalnoboyschiks' Association, for 27 March 2017, an all-Russian protest action is scheduled, where demands will be made to reduce fees for the use of roads (cancelling the fees under the Platon system), revision of fuel prices, and the structuring of the drivers' work system (including the abolition of excessive fines). At this, unlike previous actions, this will voice a distrust of the Russian President as a “guarantor of the Russian Constitution”, as well as political demands — resignation of the Russian government.

The action will be attended by about 7,000 truckers (from 45 regions of the country), who promise to put trucks along the roads of major Russian cities. That will be a beginning of an indefinite strike aimed at complicating trade turnover as much as possible, as a means of exerting pressure on the Russian government. Later, from April 15, 2017, the action of professional drivers will be supported by meetings of protest in different cities of the Russian Federation.

In the same period, from March 28, 2017, the “Polite Farmers” movement will begin a “Farmers' Tractor March to Moscow”, which will start in Stavropol, and its final destination will be the capital's Red Square. Activists will arrive in Moscow by public transport as well.

To coordinate their actions, professional drivers (truckers) and farmers have created a special coordinating committee, which includes the leaders of these protest movements. Representatives of miners of Rostov region are also invited to participate in joint actions.

Within the framework of preparations for the presidential elections in Russia in 2018, the liberal democratic opposition is intensifying its activities too. Thus, the active electoral campaign is led by the leader of the Progress Party and the founder of the Anti-Corruption Fighting Fund A. Navalnyi, resorting to methods of political struggle of the nineties of the last century. For example, in the Internet there was a video with compromising evidence on the head of the Russian government D. Medvedev about his unlawful enrichment (the number of views is more than six million). In fact, for the first time such methods have been used by the opposition since V. Putin's coming to power in the early 2000s. At the same time, according to some sources, the materials (including the detailed pictures of D. Medvedev's estate from an unmanned aerial vehicle) were handed over to A. Navalnyi by the special services of the Russian Federation, which indicates the aggravation of relations in the highest state leadership of Russia. At the same time, according to sociological researches, A. Navalnyi and his party, like other liberal democratic opposition, do not yet enjoy mass support of the country's population.

 

The growth of the Russian society's discontent by the policy of the authorities in its own way is being used by the so-called system (subordinated to the Putin regime) opposition, seeking to raise its ratings before the presidential elections. In particular, there have been attempts of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation to lead a protest movement of workers in the economic sphere of Russia (above all of the above-mentioned truckers, farmers and miners). However, their leaders do not make close contact with the Communists. Therefore, the Communist Party focuses its main efforts on its traditional electorate — senior citizens and supporters of the communist ideology, who take part in several small meeting in different cities of Russia (from a few dozen to several hundred people). These actions can become more active and more massive in October–November 2017, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the 1917's communist coup in Russia. But they will not have a significant impact on the situation in the country.

In the circumstances, protest movements of both, workers and representatives of the Russian middle class can be the most effective opposition force in the Russian Federation today. According to the assessment of A. Kudrin's non-governmental Committee for Civil Initiatives, the organized nature of these movements and the coordination of the actions show that there is a single center that is consistently working to form a united front of opponents of the Putin regime. Such a center can be located both in Russia and abroad. It has a proper funding and the necessary tools to influence the situation in the Russian Federation. At this, its organizers and financial sponsors may be both, certain Russian oligarchic circles, dissatisfied with the Kremlin (in particular, A. Chubais' group), and countries resorting to the policy of containing the Kremlin.

The Putin's regime's great problem is the growing tensions between the federal center and the regions of Russia due to the lack of funds in the state budget of the Russian Federation to finance the country's regional needs. Moreover, the government of the Russian Federation systematically increases financial exemptions from the regions (in the form of various taxes), and also redistributes their incomes in the interests of the depressed subjects of the Federation.

Thus, for today the consolidated debt of the regions of the Russian Federation already amounts to 2.2 trillion rubles, which is why local authorities reduce social expenditures. Despite this, within the next three years the Russian government plans to reduce the amount of budgetary credits for the subjects of the Federation by almost 7 times. According to experts of the S&P Global Rating Agency, this will put about 20 regions of Russia on the brink of bankruptcy.

In such a situation, the leadership of regional authorities demands from the government of the Russian Federation to increase the amount of funding for their subjects and not to reallocate revenues. This demand has been voiced by the leader of the Republic of Tatarstan R. Minnikhanov (incidentally, one of V. Putin's proteges) who has openly expressed his dissatisfaction with the withdrawal of part of the republic's income in favor of the Crimea. R. Minnikhanov's position was supported by a number of other leaders of the donor regions (in particular, during the so-called “Gaidar Forum” in January this year).

The severity of these problems is evidenced by the further bankruptcy of regional banks (due to the forced use of their funds by local authorities), which also increases protests in Russia. An example — the “collapse” of Tatfondbank in early March 2017, which brought residents of Kazan to the streets with a demand to return the deposits and dismiss the leadership of Tatarstan.

Besides, due to the worsening socio-economic situation in Russia (especially at the regional level), as well as its getting involved in the armed conflict in Syria, Islamic extremism spreads to the North Caucasus and other Muslim regions of the Russian Federation, thus increasing the level of terrorism threats throughout the country. According to the Russian Federal Security Service, in 2016 it prevented 42 terrorist acts on Islamist ground, including in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Nizhniy Novgorod.

Of course, in the near future these tendencies will not lead to large-scale social unrest in Russia or to the change of power in the country according to the scenarios of the “Arab spring” or the Ukrainian “Maydan”. But they can launch a chain reaction to destabilize the situation in the Russian Federation. The first manifestations of this will be the aforementioned protests in the Russian Federation. According to experts of the non-governmental Center for Political and Economic Analysis of Russia, in the future this process will be more organized and will reach the peak of intensity during the presidential elections in Russia in 2018. It can serve as a basis for large-scale anti-government protests of the citizens who will accuse the leadership of the Russian Federation of falsifying the presidential elections. It is characteristic that by mid-2018 all reserve funds of the Russian Federation will have been exhausted, which will put it before the threat of a full-scale economic crisis.

The leadership of the Russian Federation realizes the real danger of such a threat and is trying to take the necessary measures. Thus, in 2016 a new power structure is being created — the Federal Service of the National Guard Troops (the so-called Rosgvardia), which is controlled personally by V. Putin. The structure will prevent possible social unrest in the country. At the same time, Russia's law enforcement agencies are given the right to use force against protesters, including the use of firearms. They have also legally increased responsibility for organizing unauthorized rallies and demonstrations, for participating in them.

March 13, 2017, as part of the Russian leadership's response to the plans to hold protests of truckers and farmers, the combat readiness of Rosgvardia's units in the Southern and Central Federal Districts of Russia (for the first time since its formation) began to be tested. Methods are being mastered to combat “terrorist and extremist groups”, as well as to strengthen the protection of important state facilities and energy, industrial and transport infrastructure.

On the same day, the combat readiness of the troops of the Southern Military District of the Russian Armed Forces began to be tested (in the Stavropol and Krasnodar Territories, Chechnya, Dagestan and Karachaevo-Cherkessia). The aim of the Russian Military Command is to assist Rosgvardia in its dealing with protest actions, and also to isolate the areas of possible clashes between the government and the opposition. This is important for the leadership of the Russian Federation, because these areas are located near the conflict zone in the East of Ukraine (in fact, in the rear zone of the Russian-terrorist forces and along their communication routes), as well as the unstable region of the North Caucasus.

Against this background, pressure is exerted on the leaders of the protest movement, by bringing them to criminal responsibility under far-fetched pretexts. In particular, on 20 February 2017, the law enforcement agencies of the Russian Federation opened a criminal case against the leader of the “Polite Farmers”' movement A. Volchenko for “bribing”. Besides, a search was carried out in the Moscow office of the party “Other Russia”, and several of its activists were detained. According to the representatives of the farmers' movement, the authorities use other forms of pressure on them, including anonymous threats with murder, destruction of property, etc. Provocations are also being organized against activists at the everyday level.

At the same time, the government of the Russian Federation “seduces” protesters with all kinds of promises to satisfy their social demands. For example, it promises to pay debts to the miners of the Rostov region by the middle of this summer. At this, it is planned to receive the necessary financial resources (250 million rubles), due to the lack of funds in the state treasury of the Russian Federation, through the sale of the property of the bankrupt “Kingcoal” company (that is, their own enterprise).

There are also attempts to seize the initiative from the protesters, to split them and to establish government control over them. In particular, on 21 February 2017, under the patronage of the Government of the Russian Federation, in Moscow, the All-Russian Congress of Farmers was held, where the authorities promised “to render full assistance in solving the problems of agricultural workers”.

V. Putin pays special attention to strengthening control over the regions of the country and strengthening the leadership of the security forces. In February this year, there was a change of governors of the most problematic subjects of the Russian Federation, including Karelia, Perm region and Buryatia, Ryazan and Novgorod regions. In February–March of this year, 26 generals of different power departments of the Russian Federation lost their jobs.

 

However, Russian experts believe that the principal opponents of Putin's regime are involved in protests in Russia, and their aim is to undermine his power. Since this regime does not have the necessary resources to solve the above-mentioned socio-economic problems, it cannot stop the protesters peacefully. That is, V. Putin will use force to retain his positions in the country.

In turn, this will serve as a catalyst for increasing discontent among the population of Russia by the actions of the authorities, the protesters will intensify their activity as it was during the “Arab Spring” in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa at the beginning of 2010 and during the Ukrainian “Maydan” in 2013–2014.

The force used by the Kremlin against the opposition will give the USA and EU grounds to criticise V. Putin's regime and, accordingly, to extend their sanctions against Russia, which will only complicate its economic problems.

In fact, Putin's regime is consciously plunging into economic, social and political crisis that cannot be prevented without changing Russia's political course. And the main goal of the USA and EU's sanctions against the Russian Federation was to launch such processes.

 

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