Russian Society through the Prism of Current Political Protests

Markku Lonkila, Jarmo Koponen, Vladimir Gennarov Markku Lonkila, Jarmo Koponen, Vladimir Gennarov

To 16.2.2012 klo 10:00-11:30
The Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Kruunuvuorenkatu 4, 2nd Floor, Helsinki

The seminar will discuss the events leading to large street demonstrations against the falsification of Duma elections in Moscow in late 2011 and early 2012. The swift emergence of the protests caught the government by surprise and revealed its inability to understand both the degree of discontent among the Russian urban population and the growing power of social media. Within only a few months the stagnated political atmosphere in Russia was electrified and the legitimacy of the current government was put in question.

The seminar will examine factors that enhance or inhibit the mobilization of citizens’ discontent under the conditions of a semi-authoritarian political regime. It pays particular attention to the role of social media in organizing the protests and analyzes the likely scenarios of future developments.

The seminar marks the launch of a FIIA Working Paper by Docent Markku Lonkila on the social media in the ongoing political crisis in Russia.

Docent Markku Lonkila, Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki
Mr Jarmo Koponen, Producer, Uusi Suomi
Dr Vladimir Gelman, Professor, Department of Political Sciences and Sociology, European University at St.Petersburg

Chair: Dr Arkady Moshes, Programme Director, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs


Summary of the seminar

Where is Russian society now? As Arkady Moshes argued in his opening remarks, answering such a question might seem a mission impossible given the many aspects of today’s Russia. Yet the popular mobilisation that followed the 4 December 2011 Parliamentary elections illustrates that a new Russia has emerged, one of citizens apparently dedicated to change.

Markku Lonkila, author of a FIIA Briefing paper on “Russian protest on- and offline”, addressed the issue in examining the role of social media in the mobilisation. His study focuses on Moscow, but the outcomes of the important changes that occurred over the past 6 months, he argued, go well beyond the capital. Why did these changes occur within such an astonishingly short period of time? Among the features Lonkila recalled for contextualizing the emergence of the phenomenon is that although Russians have a growing access to the internet, there is a wide “digital divide” between connected urban centers and more isolated regions. As for the social platforms used for mobilizing protesters, in the Russian-speaking space the leading social network is not Facebook, but VKontakte. Quite unexpectedly, the Russian intelligentsia also adopted Zhivoy Zhurnal ( as its main, if not only blogosphere: many thematics are actually interconnected through this communication platform, which, in providing links to several other websites, forms the backbone of online political discussion.

The virtual social space of Zhivoy Zhurnal provides an alternative to websites relaying official, biased or controlled information. In spite of a semi-authoritarian context, which puts the social sphere in a situation of “half-freedom of speech” (a formula coined by Vladimir Gel’man), social media recently emerged as an alternative public sphere. This finding somehow contradicts the proverbial apathy of the Russian population.

One precedent can be seen in the fact that Youtube has been used over the past years for circulating information about scandals, notably of corruption, that were not denounced in mainstream media. In his presentation Lonkila showed several examples of such videos and songs, such as those of DDT singer Yuri Shevchuk, incriminating policemen, oligarchs, and Putin’s system in general. Made public as a means to restore justice, some of these movies were viewed by over a million internauts. The video of Putin being booed by the crowd at a martial arts event in Moscow on 21 November was viewed 4 million times. In this context, the announcement that he would run for a third term, whereas Medvedev would not even take part in the presidential race but instead “swap” posts with his prime minister, was a triggering event for online mobilisation. Reports of frauds circulating in social media “live” on election day turned online mobilisation into offline demonstrations gathering thousands on Bolotnaya square on 10 December, and over 100 000 people on Prospekt Sakharova on the 24th.

Lonkila’s thesis is that social media became a substitute for exchanging information for civil society: Russians traditionally distrust institutions, but they trust their social circles, made of friends and relatives. Social internet networks now provide them with an additional trust-building device: users have an anonymous trust in fellow citizens and groups of individuals whose reliability is guaranteed by the number of clicks of other internauts on their posts. Some social figures who played a key role in the December mobilisation, such as Leonid Parfionov and Aleksei Navalny, actually built their reputation on this. Social network sites in turn became mobilizing and reporting tools. The December demonstrations were planned through Facebook chats, and money for demonstration material was collected online thanks to Yandex.dengi. As on other “squares” of offline revolutions, demonstrators reported “live” via Twitter.

In conclusion, Lonkila argued that Putin’s social media policy, if he ever had one, had failed, and that online mobilisation changed the way leaders, in Russia as in neighbouring states, look at civil society. As for how the situation will evolve following the Presidential elections on 4 March, which will predictably give rise to popular protests as well, he evoked two scenarios: the “iron-hand” scenario is unlikely, because increased repression could lead to more protests against the regime; as for the “liberal” scenario, it also has its downsides, since it could widen the leeway for non-state controlled media.

Jarmo Koponen shared his views on the topic in arguing that the recent mobilisation in Russia could not be compared to the revolutionary storm that swept through authoritarian Arab countries, with which they bear only one similarity: the decisive role played by social media for organising spontaneous protests. The latter were unusual because they mobilised mainly the middle class – a class which, in Russia, is inherently non-revolutionary.

A journalist specialising on Russia, Koponen explained that his profession increasingly needs to rely on social networks, blogs and other online media for acquiring free but reliable information. Although anyone interested in Russian developments can browse the web, the work of the journalist remains more important than ever in order to prioritise data and decipher it.

One finding is that although Russian leaders control debates on TV (ranking tools such as show for example that Putin is the dominant political figure on TV screens, which he uses as a “PR” instrument), this is not the case on other media. The political awakening of an urban middle-class critical of electoral manipulations and cases of embezzlement illustrate that neither him, nor the siloviki, nor the oligarchs, could from now on monopolise the information space. As an example, Koponen evoked the recent decision to reshuffle the board of Gazprom-owned, yet critical radio Ekho Moskvy, which was vehemently denounced by its editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov as an attempt of candidate Putin to pressure political journalists. However, the authorities cannot dictate the blogosphere. Putin eventually “lost the country” between 10 and 24 December. Before that, according to the sociological survey institute VTsIOM, the share of internet users who visited social networks (Odnoklassniki, VKontakte, Facebook) or used LiveJournal or Twitter had risen from 52% in early 2010, to currently 82%.

The authorities reacted to the growing influence of famous bloggers such as Alexei Navalny or Boris Akunin (the penname of Grigory Chkhartishvili) in launching counter-information “Nashi-leaks”, whereby bloggers of Nashi (Putin’s youth movement) created “troll identities” to smear popular anti-system bloggers and leave negative comments on the web pages of protest organisers. However, when pro-Putin figures such as Sergei Govorukhin tried to mobilise internauts, they were immediately made fun of by other bloggers.

Koponen concluded in reminding that social media became “the pamphlets of the 21st century”: although new information technologies are said to keep people out of the real social world and crowds, they can eventually take them back to the “square”. In that sense, the phenomenon is not only a social, but also a political one.

Vladimir Gel’man started his assessment of the lessons and limits of the Moscow post-electoral uprising in questioning why does protest mobilisation emerge in the first place? Although a few analysts monitoring Russian social media had predicted before 4 December that thousands were ready to hit the streets to protest the predictable electoral fraud, one book even mentioning the potential for a “revolution of bloggers”, the events surprised many experts.

Scholars around the world usually focus on three constitutive elements of social mobilisations: relative deprivation as a trigger (of human rights, anti-segregation movement in the US in the 1950s-60s for example), the resource mobilised (social networks being an important tool these days) and political opportunities (with a focus on exogenous factors).

In Russia, major social protests had disappeared from the landscape: large-scale demonstrations took place since 1989-91, and the past two decades have been marked rather by “demobilisation”. Even strikes were organized by authorities, not workers. Things evolved in the 2000s when the seeds of new protest movements in defence of the environment, cultural heritage and human rights emerged, giving way to low-profile non-political activism. However, a NIMBY effect implied that these movements were either ghettoized as provocateurs, or not seen as politically serious. What changed in 2011 is that the parliamentary elections served as a window of opportunity, as it they do in any electoral authoritarian regime, for the public expression of a latent demand for change that had grown among the middle class following the announcement of the “return substitution” (Medvedev-Putin swap of posts).

The old opposition, weak and fragmented, did not use the opportunity and was overtaken by another, new generation of opposition leaders who became political mobilisers in criticizing the preservation of the status quo and builders of the new negative consensus. Their slogan against the domination of the “party of swindlers and thieves” was originally simple (“do not give your vote to United Russia”) but it soon became popular. After the elections, it evolved into “give us our vote back” (demonstrators calling for organising new, fair elections) on 10 and 24 December, whereas during the third major demonstration, on 4 February, the slogan was “Putin go home”.

The Kremlin was unprepared for such large-scale mass protests that exceeded the technical boundaries of coercion, and pro-government Nashi were also inefficient to lead the counter-revolution. The announcement of electoral legislation amendments, signalling a move towards partial and protracted liberalisation, will probably not survive Medvedev. The fact that no roundtable talks were held signals a failure of the opponents’ bargaining attempts, a feature confirmed by the administrative counter-mobilisation of Putin’s supporters on 4 February.

Gel’man’s prognosis is that an open confrontation of the government against the opposition cannot be excluded. There are already reports of the state apparatus being mobilised to guarantee that Putin gets 50% of the votes already in the first round of the presidential elections, so as to avoid a run-off. This will again trigger mobilisation and benefit the opposition in the event that the regime behaves in a shameless, lawless or brutal way. Whatever the result of the elections, 4 March will thus be but another beginning. As for the scenario for the future, it is impossible to predict whether the liberalisation/ democratisation trend will prevail over that of a full authoritarian backlash.

Arkady Moshes opened the floor for discussion in stating that the regime is using administrative as much as ideational mobilisation resources to avoid the worst for itself: the fact that it did not allow the organisers of the 4 February protests to chose the route of their march shows that it tries to intercept the initiative. In not allowing Yabloko head Grigori Yavlinski to run in the upcoming presidential elections, and in refraining from mobilising Russians abroad to vote, the regime is reacting rationally to the threat of a declining electoral support.

Questions from the audience raised a number of issues. Asked about the generation change factor (does it have to do with young people travelling more abroad?), Vladimir Gel’man said that globalisation alone favoured a spread of information and knowledge that allows people to be better prepared to understand the world, whereas the old intelligentsia, accustomed to “kitchen talks”, could already not compete with the rising star of the new generation of populist leaders, Alexei Navalny.

Another round of questions concerned how representative social media activists are of Russian society, notably outside of major urban centres. Panellists admitted that they are not representative and that a centre-periphery cleavage indeed persists, although election statistics show that United Russia also lost in smaller, peripheral cities such as Yaroslavl and Vladimir. Yet, as in rural areas, large protest mobilisation is almost impossible there due to the weakness of social networks, a lower number of activists, and the fear that too much visibility would call on them targeted repression. However, the main purpose of NGOs such as the League of electors being to strive for the Parliament to become more representative of the whole population, one cannot rule out that mobilisation, whether online or off-line, reaches the regions.

Regarding the possibility that communists, currently the only opposition party present in the Duma, could gain from the announced legislative amendments, Gel’man answered that the rise of out-of-system opposition is actually more dangerous for them than it is for United Russia. Lastly, questions revolved around the issue of the future impact of on- and off-line protest mobilisation. The panellists could not predict how things will evolve, given that the opposition, whether traditional or through social networks, does not seem to have a post-electoral strategy. Yet, the opposition being now based on a “negative consensus”, political camps might well split and new parties appear and clash in the future. As for the social networks, they lack organisation and a “positive agenda”. Therefore, much will actually depend on the attitude of the regime itself.