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A Tale of Two Protests

Is there any difference between European and Russian social movements? Boris Kagarlitsky thinks the gulf is vast. I found his evaluation of the riots in Estonia and the “Other Russia” marches worth pondering. He writes in his latest column, “Bronze Soldier Takes a Shot”:

Here in Russia we have nothing to do but to follow the events in Tallinn with envy and astonishment, for our own oppositionists have repeatedly failed to make people hit the street. The liberal press has to focus on police atrocities against the participants of all sorts of “Dissenter’s Marches”, for the marches themselves are inconsiderable in number and can hardly make big news. So far, the most successful march in St. Petersburg managed to gather about four thousand people, other actions can hardly be called mass protests at all, but for the massive presence of OMON (Russian SWAT), FSB, the police and the press.

However, the number of the dissenters is not the key element – what really matters is the qualitative differences between the social protest movements in Europe and in Russia.

First and foremost, social mobilization in Europe always takes place around a concrete issue, with clear and realistic demands being formulated: to abolish the “First Employment Contract” in France, to return the Ungdomshuset (literally «the Youth House») in Copenhagen to the people, to leave the bronze soldier in Tallinn at its place. These demands are clear, concrete and quite satisfiable. Our intellectuals keep arguing if diametrically opposite political forces should unite their political potential in “Dissenters’ Marches”. These debates are due to speculative and demagogic nature of the Marches that unite discreet social forces in order to express discontent per se, not in connection to a concrete issue. While in Western Europe the opposition politicians jointly lead the people into the streets to get concrete problems resolved, our political movements only seek to use each other, failing to find consent and showing disrespect of all possible democratic values.

As for political leaders, their active role in “Dissenters’ Marches” is another telling distinction of our protest expression from spontaneous grass-roots level actions in Europe. Of course, the majority of protest actions in Western Europe are orchestrated. But they are not staged by the leading opposition politicians. Europeans hit the street when they disagree with some event and feel that the politicians cannot or don’t want to represent people’s will. Our situation is a paradox: it is not the citizens who search for the way out of the political stalemate but the politicians themselves. Acknowledging their impotence, Russian oppositionists are trying to imitate the European-like social movements.

Authoritarian nature of Putin’s regime partly accounts for this paradox. But the regime, as authoritarian as it is, doesn’t deprive leaders of the “Other Russia” or the “United Civil Front” of alternative democratic strategies and methods. The authoritarian grip can be felt at the “Ford” or “Heineken – Petersburg” plants where workers are simply prohibited to hold rallies, or at the city social movements level whose demands are merely ignored.

The game of the “Other Russia” is to form a “broad coalition” and use the existing social protest for its own profit. It is nothing more than political manipulation. And though it might have relative success in the instantaneous political game, it is an obstacle for further development of the civil conscience in our society, for it doesn’t intend to turn the crowd into citizens, but has been repeatedly trying to gather a crowd out of the citizens.

Hopefully, civil conscience will develop independently of the “Other Russia”, the president or his spin-doctors with their “sovereign democracy” conceptions. It will happen gradually as people get more social experience: sooner or later, shifting way of life will change political behavior.

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