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December 29, 2013
December 29, 2013

Interview with Mischa Gabowitsch

Author: Àngel Ferrero
This article is also available in: esel
Interview with Mischa Gabowitsch

Mischa Gabowitsch is the author of “Putin kaputt!?” (Berlín, Suhrkamp, 2013), a complete and accurate sociological study on the wave of protests in Russia in the period 2011-2013, its profound causes, and its impact on the country. He is associate researcher in Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany.

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He was interviewed for La Directa by Àngel Ferrero, member of the editorial committee of SinPermiso.

Winter 2011 – the protests begin in Russia. But why in 2011 and not before?

There were several massive protest waves in previous years. Russia saw nationwide protest in 2005 in response to the monetisation of social benefits, and there were substantial regional protests in 2008-9 in the Kaliningrad and Vladivostok regions. There are also lots of local movements, e.g. against urban infill construction. The protests that started in December 2011 were caused by a rigged election to the State Duma, the lower house of the national parliament. Elections had been manipulated before, but now for the first time there was a large network of domestic (as opposed to international) election monitors. They posted videos and reports of their observations online, causing a surge of outrage that was not limited to Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

The Western press often speaks about “the” opposition, but the opposition is a broad coalition of groups. Sometimes they even have opposite agendas, like the Left Front and the Russian nationalists. Who is the opposition and what is their objective?

In Russia it is extremely important to distinguish between protesters and the opposition. Most protest participants mistrust the organised political opposition, which only represents a tiny fraction of those who turn out for demonstrations and other protest events. “Opposition” means, on the one hand, political parties that are well-integrated into the authoritarian political system, even though there can considerable internal dissent and, on the other hand, extraparliamentary opposition groups and networks such as Alexei Navalny’s. There is immense ideological variety among these groups, which are often centrally organised around a leader figure and lack internal democracy, although some are transforming themselves into horizontal networks. They are forced to cooperate across ideological boundaries precisely because they are so weak. In any case, politics in Russia remains extremely personalised: one and the same organisation can stand for widely different aims and views in two different regions, depending on the local leader.

There were protests beyond Moscow?

My colleagues and I have assembled a detailed database of protest events and slogans starting in November 2011. There were protests in every single Russian region, with only three exceptions (and in many places abroad), although the size, content, organisers, and rhetoric of the protests varied significantly. This was emphatically not a Moscow-based movement, even though it may seem so because journalists and bloggers tend to focus on Moscow and ignore the rest of the country.

Who supports the opposition in Russia? Who backs the Kremlin?

It is misleading to portray Russian politics as a battle between “the Kremlin” and the opposition. Political life is determined by closely-knit loyalty networks, e.g. around regional governors. Neither opposition parties nor United Russia have many fervent supporters. What differs is the way in which they mobilise their supporters: state institutions and companies that depend on the state often exert pressure on their employees to turn out for pro-regime demonstrations. The most active anti-Putin protesters are often people who are relatively independent from such pressure, for example because they are self-employed or unemployed.


In which stage are the protests now?

The massive protest wave that began in December 2011 largely died down by early 2013. However, there are still all kinds of local protests. Most importantly, however, that period of mobilisation has created many new networks or civic councils as well as specialised groups, such as local associations of election observers or anti-corruption activists. Many activists have also decided to focus on elections, such as the recent regional ballots which resulted in the election of several candidates not affiliated with United Russia.

Boris Kagarlitsky has written that the Russian authorities fear an economic downturn and the grassroots organisations addressing bread and butter issues like housing or energy prices more than the opposition itself, specially the liberals who support Navalny in Moscow. Do you agree?

I do, and I would add that Navalny owes his success in large part to his ability to address housing and urban maintenance issues in ways that make it easy for people to get involved online. The most recent protests were certainly not a “middle-class” movement, but they were mostly driven by the most educated citizens; there was very little blue-collar participation. If resentment grows among less educated and socially mobile people, the authorities might start losing their grip over the repressive apparatus, which would be a much greater danger to them than even very large anti-corruption protests. It could also empower regional politicians and give them greater bargaining power vis-à-vis the Kremlin.

How have the protests in Russia modified the policy of United Russia and the parties in the opposition, specially the KPRF?

For one thing, the presidential administration no longer seems to rely as heavily on United Russia as the main mechanism for elite consolidation, and there is now greater competition within the party, because its candidates need to have real popular appeal. Opposition parties are faced with a difficult choice between holding on to cozy positions within the current political system or voicing outright dissent at the risk of losing access to privileges. The KPRF is a case in point: in 2011-12, they were the most visible organisation at the protests in a number of regions, yet only a few individual members have risked actively opposing the presidential administration in parliament. The new, more liberal party law has led to the creation of a plethora of new parties, which creates pressure to propose real alternatives but also drains support away from the few parties that might have a chance of challenging the current system.


Which are the main traits of what in the book is described as “Putin’s system” and is more known as “vertical of power”?

It is a system that relies very heavily on patronage networks at all levels of the state, from Putin’s personal friends at the very top all the way down to village administrators. These networks have always dominated Russian politics, but under Putin they were integrated into a single system. Political conflict and competition is not eliminated, but it is hidden from public view because it has become an intra-elite process instead of an electoral battle. The presidential administration acts as the final arbiter because it can distribute resources and uses the repressive apparatus to enforce its decisions.

According to your conclusions, the protests could reshape the Russian state into a more federal one. What is the current situation of the national minorities in Russia?

The question of federalism is distinct from that of national minorities, since many regions have a large Russian majority, and many of those considered minorities live outside their titular region. The political structure of the regions is much more important than whether they are defined as minority regions. If the system were less centralised, structural differences between the regions would become more obvious: Ramzan Kadyrov’s dictatorial rule in Chechnya would no longer be propped up by financial support from the Kremlin, Kaliningrad and Karelia would become more openly pluralistic, but the poorest regions could also become even more disadvantaged.

How do you assess the upsurge of Russian nationalism?

“Russian nationalism” stands for many things; the most worrying development in recent years is the rise in xenophobic violence, which has been growing even as Russia’s generally very high level of homicides has been slowly falling. This violence is concentrated in some of the largest cities and primarily targets Russian citizens from the North Caucasus as well as seasonal migrant workers from Central Asia. Both the state and opposition groups, including liberals, have been using these people as scapegoats by reinterpreting social problems as ethnic ones. Unfortunately this is likely to continue, echoing at a much more serious level developments that we are also seeing elsewhere in Europe.

How are affecting the protests in Russia its growing geopolitical role? How a change of system would affect this role?

So far there has been very little direct influence, because in Russia foreign policy is even less susceptible to popular pressure than elsewhere, and there is little reason to believe that Putin’s opponents would pursue a radically different foreign policy. However, Putin’s insistence on the principle of national sovereignty and his aversion to international intervention in countries such as Libya and Syria has to do with his fear of other countries fomenting dissent in Russia. That is an unlikely prospect, but the fear is very real.


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