What’s new on the new Russian protests?
If during the free election protests of 2011-12 there were more protest events (many participants “suddenly” mobilized), then today’s protest is a more routine affair. The mobilization for the latest mass protests is not so much the result of spontaneous discontent, but rather the systematic work of Navalny, his team, politicized local elected officials and well-known activists. Judging by the fact that dissatisfaction in Russian society is growth, especially among the poor, and the protest audience is not growing (support for Navalny is growing very slowly), the people who came out in 2021 are probably the core of a potential protest audience: not just people dissatisfied with the Russian state policies, but those who support specific politicians fighting against the regime and are confident in their own will to act.
Indeed, another point that suggests this is the case is the determination of participants in recent gatherings to continue to demonstrate no matter what. The overwhelming majority of those polled on April 21 said they were confident they would continue to attend the rallies. Many protesters, they say, can only be stopped by prolonged arrest, serious illness or, in the words of a young man in Moscow, “if our demands are met, including a change of power.” Others said they would be arrested if the risks associated with the protests increased. In other words, these are not people who hesitated until the last minute to participate, just went to ‘take a look’ and are not sure to return. These are people who regularly attend or have attended rallies – the core of a potential protest audience.
A protest core can be seen as a sort of layer between protest leaders and a mass of disgruntled people who are not yet ready to demonstrate regularly. The demands formulated by this nucleus are largely set by the leaders of the protest. At the same time, their discontent goes far beyond the demands made by the leaders and reflects the discontent of a larger section of the population. This gap between the perceived discontent and the motivations and demands expressed by the demonstrators was clearly visible in the interviews we collected.
The most popular motive for participation, according to those who attended the April 21 rallies, was support for Navalny, who was being “held hostage” by Russian authorities, as well as demands for his release and to allow medics independent to care for him. Many informants expressed their concern about the situation of Navalny, then on hunger strike, in terms of a “regime that kills”: “It is unacceptable to kill people” (male, 66, Moscow), “I cannot look at a living person killed ”(female, 60, Moscow). This is an agenda explicitly expressed by the organizers of the rallies.
Often, requests related to Navalny were supplemented by requests for the release of other political prisoners. In general, many of our informants spoke of demonstrating in favor of “innocent political prisoners” (female, 42, Moscow). We also encountered demands during the 2011-12 protests. For example, informants proposed abstract slogans “against the arbitrariness of the authorities” (woman, 43 years old, Moscow), “against an immutable regime” (woman, 42 years old, Moscow) and even “against everything” (woman, about 50 years old, Moscow), and also “for our rights, our freedom and for the beautiful Russia of tomorrow” (female, 24, Saint Petersburg). Sometimes there were demands for the rule of law and respect for human rights, and the need to “show that we exist in the country”. In general, these slogans coincide with the rhetoric of Navalny’s YouTube channels, and the investigations of his Anti-Corruption Foundation.