Waves of protests in Russia and the Soviet Union
The current wave of protest in Russia over the massive election fraud witnessed in the December 2011 Duma election and March 2012 presidential election differs from earlier opposition movements in several respects.
First, it is broader in scale than any protest movements in Russia since the late 1980s, when glasnost' and newly competitive soviet elections encouraged popular mobilization.
Second, it is the outgrowth of the widening use of social media to organize collective acts of civic protest. In many cities, the past several years have seen public movements arise quickly in reaction to misconduct by local officials; the posting of video clips manifesting routine abuses of power by officials has been a powerful impetus to such movements, which are organized by harnessing the power of social networks. In that sense, the contemporary protest movements are less reliant on specific individual leaders or platforms than were protests in the early 2000s.
Third, they reflect the growing self-confidence and self-awareness of segments of the public who consider themselves to represent the "middle class." That is, in the demand to be treated as citizens rather than as passive subjects of the state ("my ne bydlo," as many declare) they are similar to the civic movements demanding respect for participatory rights that have transformed other societies (Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s, Mexico in the 1990s, Tunisia and Egypt in 2011).
Finally, the current protest movement has begun to enter the arena of practical politics, for instance by registering as election observers in the March presidential election and the recent mayoral run-off election in Yaroslavl'. Some activists have run for local office in Moscow and elsewhere, and some of them have won office. For these reasons, the contemporary protest movement is far less tied to the political personas of particular leaders than past movements.
Prominent figures such as Vladimir Ryzhkov, Boris Nemtsov, and Mikhail Kasyanov have been upstaged by newly emerging champions of democratic opposition such as blogger Aleksei Navalny, writer Boris Akunin, and media celebrity Ksenia Sobchak. There is no common platform or organization for this opposition movement, a fact which reduces the danger that it will be captured by demagogues but which also makes it difficult for it to enter into dialogue with the authorities.
The situation can be compared to the transition from the explosive rise of "informal" political groups in the late 1980s in the glasnost' period to the phase of mobilization of electoral movements in 1989, 1990 and 1991. A crucial figure in this period was Academician Andrei Sakharov, whom Gorbachev had famously invited to return to Moscow.
When Gorbachev sought to channel the energies aroused by glasnost' and perestroika into the hard work of elections for the new USSR Congress of People's Deputies, Sakharov was nominated by a group of his fellow scientists to run as a candidate for the Congress from the Academy of Sciences. His candidacy was of course opposed by conservative establishment figures inside and outside the Academy. His supporters mobilized, and succeeded in overcoming the opposition.
As deputy, Sakharov immediately became the de facto leader of the democratically-minded "Inter-Regional Group of Deputies" in the Congress. A day or two before his death in December 1989, Sakharov met with his fellow democrats, and gave them a characteristically far-sighted admonition about the implications of comprising an "opposition." Up till now, he told them, opposition forces thought of themselves as simply being against the current regime. But being the opposition meant also being willing to assume responsibility for rule, as is the role of the "loyal opposition" in the British system.
Therefore it was incumbent on the democratic opposition movement, to be ready with its own concrete proposals for government, and not simply to be reflexively opposed to whatever the regime did. Alas, Sakharov died before he could reshape the democratic movement in the Gorbachev period into a "loyal opposition." Nevertheless, the same challenge now awaits Russia's contemporary democratic opposition movement.
Thomas F. Remington is Goodrich C. White Professor of Political Science, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
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