Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Protests in Russia: The Example of the Blue Buckets Society

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Protests in Russia: The Example of the Blue Buckets Society

Article excerpt

Even though Russia's political regime assumed a semi-authoritarian character within a few years after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 and the Putin leadership has recently tightened the limits on competition and discussion further, citizens of that country have continued to hold many protests. Indeed, the number of protests in Russia has probably grown since the first years of this century.1 It is important, however, to distinguish between two types of protests that take place in Russia under Putin.

The first type of protests consists of those demonstrations that are focused on demands for change in the essential features of the national political regime, such as those calling for the protection of human rights and the fulfillment of the promise of democracy. Journalists and politicians in some Western countries primarily devote attention to Russian protests of that type; they assume that the participants in such events are heirs to the legacy of Soviet dissidents, and perhaps even hearken back to the example of the liberal intelligentsia of Tsarist Russia. It seems likely that such a perspective on protests in Russia as giving voice to a hunger for freedom is most prevalent in the United States, reflecting a distinctively American optimism about the spread of democracy to other countries. For Americans and many others in Western democracies, those in Russia who share their values, with an emphasis on individual rights and personal freedom, are very appealing. Many in the West may assume that such advocates of democracy speak for Russian society as a whole, voicing the aspirations of the people of their country.

In reality, however, most protests in Russia are not of the type that has just been described. Most of the protest movements that appear in that country do not spring up when groups of citizens are motivated by violations of the principles of democracy. Instead, protests take place when groups of citizens are aroused to complain about actions by government officials or businesses (or both) that have a damaging impact on citizens' daily lives,2 touching a raw nerve with those who feel that they are being treated unjustly and with a lack of respect. People who have usually been politically quiet and passive can suddenly become discontented and noisy if a local government locates a garbage dump near their neighborhood, or if local officials give permission for the construction of tall apartment buildings near their homes, or if they learn that new construction will encroach on a park where they often stroll, or if a new tax will make it difficult for them to do business in the area of the economy in which they operate. Typically, protests of this type originate in response to social and economic issues that are important to the work or living conditions of groups of people.

Protests of this type can be distinguished from those of the first type in a number of ways. First, the issues on which such protests concentrate are defined primarily in terms of concrete, specific problems, not in relation to basic, abstract principles such as democracy and individual rights. The orientation of the protesters in such cases is essentially defensive, in the sense that they respond to actions by government or businesses that disrupt the conditions to which citizens have become accustomed, and they seek to defend rights that those citizens heretofore regarded as established.

Second, the targets of complaints are usually local officials (who are often seen as collaborating with businesses), and less often officials in the central government. Even if protesters complain about the performance of particular officials in the national government, they almost never criticize the most important official, the president of Russia. Indeed, if demonstrators' demands cannot be satisfied at a lower level, they usually appeal to the president, Vladimir Putin, to intervene and solve their problems. If any statements by the president seem to support their position, the discontented citizens are sure to use his words to enhance the legitimacy of their cause. …

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