Russia’s meddling gets more credit than it deserves

Interview with Mark Galeotti by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska from New Eastern Europe, exclusive bimonthly news magazine dedicated to Central and Eastern European affairs.

I wanted to ask you about the recent protests in Russia. The authorities arrested a large number of people, Navalny was detained even before he left his house. What does it tell us about the Russian authorities?

I think it is interesting because the response has not been as vicious or violent as it could have been. Let us be honest, a fair number of the arrests, particularly in Moscow, were because protesters decided not to go to the authorised location but instead to Tverskaya Street in the centre, which was an obvious challenge to the authorities. I think what is interesting is that both sides are playing long games. Navalny is not naïve. He does not believe that he will be standing in the 2018 elections and he certainly does not believe that he could win. He has positioned himself so that in due course, when there is a more democratic process in place, he will already have a recognised name and a national movement.

I think the authorities are also playing a longer game. Look at what happened in 2011-2012: then, they clearly had no idea what to do. At first, they allowed an anti-Putin movement to emerge and then they came back with very heavy-handed repression. This shattered the protests on the streets, but at the same time, it created a worse problem because it forced people to organise much more effectively. What they have realised now is that it was a mistake. So, in fact, their response to the more recent protests has involved a certain degree of permissiveness. After all, Navalny was originally given approval to protest and not at a location way out at Moscow’s outskirts but at Sakharov Street, still not the city centre, but relatively close. Thus they mix a degree of permissiveness with a level of authoritarian repression. I think the authorities are trying to stop the movement from expanding but are hoping that it will burn itself out in time rather than thinking that they can smash it. At the moment, then, both sides are engaged in a long-term strategy and this is just a skirmish in a longer war.

Do you think that the nature of protest in Russia is changing? Or the nature of opposition activity?

These are two connected but separate questions. If you look at the opposition, first of all, it is clear that Navalny has learned the lessons of 2011-2012. Back then, they relied on the initial pulse of moral outrage at the rigged elections and it was a protest movement fuelled by middle class metropolitan semi-elites who wanted to have a say in this process. No real attempt was made to reach out to other constituencies. No real attempt was made to create a protest machine. There is a limit to how far you can rely on Twitter or VKontakte as instruments of protest. And therefore, not surprisingly, while it was amazing and inspiring, it tapped out a limited reservoir of support.

Navalny, unlike many others within the opposition, has realised that, first of all, he should not start by going against Putin. Putin has an iconic status among Russians, even those unhappy with the status quo. Therefore, he purposefully shifted to systemic issues, above all, corruption, and also the position of Prime Minister Medvedev. Secondly, and most importantly, Navalny realised the need for a national movement. And that requires organisation. You have to have people willing to do the boring work: canvassing and putting leaflets through letter boxes, all that kind of stuff. He could not solely rely on tweets and social media activities. And that is why he has been doing the groundwork and it is now beginning to happen.

What for me is very interesting is that there are still two untapped reservoirs of additional protest capacity. One is labour unrest: there is a huge potential in labour protest, a lot of which is happening already, but wildcat, very temporary, and very local because the official trade unions are still Soviet-style engines of the state rather than anything else. So it is scattered and sporadic and also very hard to track. But if you talk to people who travel between the regions it is clear that there is a lot of unrest. And no one has yet managed to find a way to crystallise it, there is no Solidarity-style movement. I was once talking to an FSB officer responsible for a region’s domestic security. “What is your job?” I asked. He replied: “My job is to make sure that no Lech Wałęsa emerges in my oblast”. It is quite interesting that even he put it in such terms.

The second reservoir is related to the fact that for most Russians, life is much harder now compared with before 2014. The average Russian now spends more than half his or her income on food, and has little hope that things will get better soon. Who is standing up for them? The Communist Party and people like Zyuganov, the party leader, have for years accepted their role as part of the fake opposition. But there is a rising cohort of younger, particularly local, leaders. These are people who joined the Party not out of nostalgia for a Soviet Union that frankly never was, and not really because they are Marxist-Leninist, but because if you want to oppose the system, and particularly the kind of rapacious, almost caricature capitalism that it embodies, you want to be part of a structure, and the Communist Party is the only option in town. Even if you look at Moscow, the Moscow party leader Valeri Rashkin is actually quite personally close to Navalny. It will be interesting to see what happens, as you will have the Communist Party either trying to compete with Navalny, or actually joining forces. In the last parliamentary elections, I was looking at the Communist Party's talking points for their canvassers on the streets and I compared them with past ones. The time before, it was all about anodyne issues such as standing for “more help for veterans”. Who stands for less help for veterans? But for the most recent election, they were telling their canvassers to raise corruption within the government and other real issues. And it is not because Zyuganov wanted that, but because he was forced to accept it. So there are all kinds of interesting potentialities, which are not going to emerge until 2018, and maybe not even then, but are building within Russia.

So you do not see any potential candidate who could challenge Putin in 2018… And in a long-term perspective?

...Read the answer and the rest of the article here.

Dr Mark Galeotti is the IIR Senior Researcher, the Co-ordinator of the Centre for European Security of the IIR as well as an internationally recognized expert on transnational organized crime, security issues and modern Russia.