Many Russians aren’t protesting against Putin — they want his help

Riot police detain a protester during an unauthorized anti-corruption rally in Moscow on March 26, 2017. (Alexander Utkin/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

The widespread Russian protests against corruption, inspired by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, made global headlines earlier this year. The roots of dissatisfaction often are more personal than political, however, as many Russian citizens have been protesting to defend the ownership and use of private property.

What are Russians protesting, and what do they want the government to do? Here’s a rundown:

1) Russian citizens protest crooked housing deals

The real estate scams reportedly involved upward of a half-million Russians who invested in new apartments. Some companies collected funds from “shareholders” in these buildings and promised to build condominiums — then disappeared without building the units or returning the money. Groups of victims have asked for help from local, provincial and national authorities and have carried out public demonstrations, but the government has met very few of their demands.

2) Farmers protest land-grabbing

Many farmers in Krasnodar and Stavropol, in southern Russia, complain that large agroholdings have claimed parts of the land that they cultivated and thought that they owned. In August 2016, some of those farmers headed to Moscow, but local police and federal officials blocked the tractor marches. The farmers’ desire for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin has not been satisfied, and the national legislature has not provided a remedy for their problem.

3) Truckers protest a 2015 road tax

A new law created a new national tax, “platon,” which charges heavy trucks a toll in relation to the number of miles they travel on federal highways. The truckers’ protests have taken the form of slow-moving convoys of large trucks on major routes, including highways around Moscow. The government did engage in discussions with the representatives of the truckers and did make some concessions, but the truckers still call for the repeal of the tax.

3) Motorists protest officials’ driving abuses

The Blue Buckets Society is a citizen group founded in 2010 in reaction to the behavior of Russia’s political and economic elites, who commonly violated the rules that most drivers must observe. Some Russians have taped a blue plastic bucket to their car roof that mimics the blue flashing light of an official vehicle, to protest the dangerous driving and slow traffic that ensues when these vehicles are on the move.

The Blue Buckets Society and other organizations of motorists recently expanded their protests to push back against on-street parking fees in Moscow and other Russian cities, as parking restrictions expand beyond the central city zone. Many Muscovites also protested the actions of heavy-handed parking officials — and the stiff costs to recover vehicles towed for parking violations.

5) And Moscow residents contest the demolition of hundreds of thousands of apartments

Since February, there has been heated debate about the demolition of Khrushchev-era apartments in Moscow. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced a plan to demolish and replace hundreds of thousands of apartments. To facilitate the vast “renovation” project, a proposed law was introduced in the lower house of parliament, and it immediately provoked enormous controversy.

Had it been adopted, the law would have permitted the city government to force the residents of an apartment to move out within 60 days. Any legal objections would be limited to complaints about the floor space in their new apartment — not about the location of the new building, the quality of construction or the market value of the new apartment.

Some of those living in the old apartments did not want to move because their buildings were in satisfactory condition and they preferred to stay in a convenient location. Most crucially, many Russians saw the proposed law as an assault on the ownership of private property, despite attempts by city officials and the national government to reassure everyone that their property rights would be protected.

Residents in many buildings and neighborhoods protested the resettlement project. The opponents of the proposed law also organized a protest in central Moscow on May 14, 2017, in which more than 20,000 people participated. The public outcry about the proposed renovations prompted hasty maneuvering by the city leaders and the national government, which produced many revisions to the legislation with concessions to its critics before it was approved by both houses of parliament and signed into law by Putin.

These are anti-policy demonstrations, not anti-government ones

Much of the recent media coverage of protests in Russia has created the impression that protesters are devoted to the principles of democracy and seek to transform the character of their national political regime. Instead, in Russia today, the main goal of a wide variety of protest movements is the defense of the ownership and use of small-scale private property.

In fact, most protests in Russia focus on specific policy goals related to issues that threaten to disrupt the daily lives of substantial numbers of citizens. It is revealing that in recent months the movement against demolition and renovation in Moscow has kept its distance from the protests organized by Navalny, which deal with the far broader problems of corruption and government transparency.

Instead of calling for Putin to leave office, the anti-demolition demonstrators, along with other protesters, want him to intervene and solve their problems. This is the more complex reality in Russia, in which groups that are part of the general base of support for Putin are moved to challenge specific policies for various reasons, including that of protecting the ownership and use of private property.

Alfred B. Evans, Jr. is professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at California State University at Fresno. His current research focuses on civil society and protests in Russia, and ideological trends in that country.

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