Why the protests in Russia are different

Two weekends of protests for a fair election in Moscow reveal a moral intensity rarely seen in Russia. They also reveal Kremlin fears over losing power.

A pro-democracy protester holds a Russian flag while he is detained by police in Moscow July 27.

Over the last two weekends, tens of thousands of Russians protested in Moscow after opposition politicians were barred from running in a city council election this September. The size of the protests was relatively small. And the election itself is for a body with little power. Yet observers note a stark shift from previous protests in 2011-12. Middle-class Russians seem less fearful of the Kremlin as they have intensified their moral demands more than their material interests.

In the protests on July 27, the number of people taken into custody – nearly 1,400 – set a record for post-Soviet protests. In addition, the riot police and National Guard were particularly brutal in their crackdown. With rising uncertainty over how long President Vladimir Putin can stay in power, the Kremlin fears any protest might spark a wider revolt. As poverty rises and personal incomes shrink, Mr. Putin may feel he must be more heavy-handed in controlling Russia’s limited democracy.

During the protests, those fears were matched by the demonstrators’ determination for fair democracy. “Those young people who came out on the street were absolutely fearless,” said Konstantin Remchukov, owner and editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an influential daily newspaper, in an interview with The National Interest magazine. “It was the first time that I saw people who did not care about whether or not they would be taken into custody or arrested by the police.”

Russia’s rulers have long boosted their legitimacy by two primary means: providing material benefits, such as bread, or arranging nationalist glory, such as hosting the Olympics or invading nearby nations. Yet, says Mr. Remchukov, recent polls show the public’s greater demand for “no limitations on personal freedom” than for an improved economy. And nationalist memories are fading after Mr. Putin’s taking of Crimea in 2014.

In addition, 84% of Russians say they want to contribute to the improvement of the country. “We’ve never had such a mood,” said Mr. Remchukov, who attributes much of the change to the use of social media. Another poll in July showed almost 2 out of 5 Russians would not like to see Mr. Putin stay in office after his current term ends in 2024.

The next protest is planned for Aug. 3. As during the last two, the moral force of Russians seeking equal rights and fair elections will be up against the raw force of a regime losing popularity. The numbers remain small. Yet the stakes are huge for the world’s largest country by size.

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