24 January 2024
By Andrei Presnyakov
On 15 January in the small Bashkir town of Baimak, a verdict was to be delivered to Fail Alsynov, an activist well-known in the republic. Since 2014, he has been the leader of local opposition national organization Bashkort. On 28 April last year, Fail spoke at one of the rallies against open-pit gold-mining in the Baimaksky district, on how it leads to the destruction of local nature, pastures, and meadows. As a result, according to the statement of head of the Republic Rady Khabirov, a criminal case was opened against Alsynov for ‘incitement of ethnic hatred.’
In January, several thousand people gathered in Baimak, staging mass rallies in support of the activist. The verdict was postponed until 17 January and on 16 January Rosfinmonitoring added Alsynov to the list of people involved in extremist and terrorist activities. The guilty verdict triggered real anger among supporters of the accused. Confrontations with the police began – an investigation into ‘mass riots’ was initiated. On 18 January a protest rally took place in Ufa. The police used force against those gathered.
These events have elicited a new wave of discussion on the possibility and prospects of new opposition protests in Russia. The last mass demonstrations took place in February-March 2022, were anti-war in nature, and were suppressed. Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, in an interview with Spektr magazine, described how protests in various regions of Russia differ, what determines public opinion in the country, and what factors affect it.
– Against the background of mass riots in Bashkiria, I would like to ask: are there any statistics on forms of protest activity depending on region? Do demonstrations in Dagestan and Ingushetia differ, for example, from acts of protest in Khabarovsk or Arkhangelsk?
– The fact is that the reasons for protests can be very different. The main difference, probably, is that when the intelligentsia go out into the streets, liberal protest is more organised and less violent. When the people who live far from the capital rise up, they respond to violence with violence. These people have a simpler reaction. They don’t reflect much, don’t contemplate what it will cost them, what the consequences will be – their actions are more impulsive.
The main difference between the capital and the provinces is the speed of reaction and the degree of violence. The periphery usually reacts more slowly, so discontent accumulates there for a long time, and then bursts through – frequently for some incidental reason. In the centre, protest is more tied to the specifics of the moment, to something concrete. People protest more often there. A reason arose – they came out, the protest is broken up. They expressed their dissatisfaction, next time they will come out for a different reason.
There is, of course, a dimension connected with religion. The Caucasus erupted because of solidarity with Muslims who are suffering in the Gaza Strip. There is an ethnic dimension in Bashkiria as well. There, the protest had a clear ethnic character.
– In the last 5-10 years, we have often heard about protests in the republics of the North Caucasus: Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria. Do people there really go out into the streets more often than those in regions where the majority of the population consists of ‘Russians’?
– No, I don’t notice such a pattern. If in the Caucasus people protest more often than in the average Russian city, this is connected not with a specific mentality, but with the fact that there are problems there which don’t exist, generally speaking, in a city like Voronezh.
Recall how things flared in Ingushetia when Chechnya made a claim on its territory. It is also necessary to take into account the structure of society in the southern republics, where the clans bring in an element that does not exist in Voronezh. If you have insulted my clan, this is a stimulus for me to act. One cannot conclude that the Russian regions are ‘dormant’ while these others are ready to rebel.
‘Calm’ regions can explode unexpectedly, not to mention that protest in general periodically takes different forms. Okay, there have never been mass demonstrations in Vladimir region, but voters there persistently participate in protest voting, and in the Caucasus, where protests happen periodically, United Russia has no problems with the voting – there, 100% are for this party.
– If you look at Russia as a whole, is there a demand for protest in the country today?
– Potentially there definitely is, but I can’t say with confidence that it’s of immediate interest right now because public demand today is so contradictory and unstable. On 24 February 2022, a chaotization began in the public consciousness. People were in shock. No one could imagine that a full-fledged war was possible in the twenty-first century—with shellings, bombings, and killings of tens of thousands of civilians, with torture and brutality akin to the Nazis’.
Plus there is the aggressive propaganda with which you may not agree but which is very hard to resist—that propaganda goes hand in hand with repressions against all dissidents. All this taken together makes it very difficult to talk about public opinion. For a proper analysis in usual times, public opinion has to be left to itself, but pressing on it now are the hysterical propaganda and repression, which are becoming mass in nature. Not only are opposition leaders being persecuted, so are totally random individuals.
In this situation, public opinion can be paralyzed in some places, while in others, on the contrary, it instantly turns hysterical. Today people may be feeling a surge of strength because it seems to them that ‘everything is clear,’ here’s the ‘truth’ and soon there will be ‘victory.’ The next moment, literally a few days later, [we have] Prigozhin’s rebellion, the attack on Belgorod, or the raids by the Russian Volunteer Corps on Russian territory, and everyone is once again distraught and no one knows or understands anything.
On the whole, there is a weariness due to what is going on and a desire for it all to end soon, but there is no precise understanding of how to do that. Latently, there is an understanding that we have to get rid of Putin, but people are afraid to admit that to themselves because that means they would have to take the side of the opposition, with which the regime does not stand on ceremony. It’s scary. People are afraid of even verbalizing this understanding to themselves, but when they look at opposition statements from a remove, their reaction is more positive than negative. Look: protests burst out in Bashkiria, and immediately crowds of people flocked to add their signature for Boris Nadezhdin.
Added to this is the fact that opposition leaders have begun to speak out in support of this candidate, but I think the unexpected outburst in Bashkiria played no less of a role. It’s almost like the Prigozhin uprising. Not as strong, of course, but when people in Bashkiria began to fight OMON forces, when they entered into serious conflict — this, of course, showed that all is far from as well with the regime as the propaganda asserts, that the regime has serious problems, including with the people far from the capital. Ultimately, the struggle makes sense, and people have risen up. Yes, there is potential demand for protest, but right now it’s nowhere to be seen and is not much verbalized. People are afraid.
– Does this mean there is civil solidarity in Russia after all?
– No, this is more like emotions. Once again, people have hope that, if the regime has problems, then struggle isn’t useless. A person asks himself, what can I do? And he answers: go sign for Nadezhdin. I repeat, there is a second factor as well. Kats, Khodorkovsky, and Navalny’s supporters have started calling on people to add their signature for this candidate. These two circumstances have come into play fifty-fifty. From two directions.
– At the same time, many experts are saying that, since the war, Russian society has become more atomized than it was before 2022.
– You could probably say that. People are afraid of discussing the political agenda with each other. In this sense, yes. Society has become more atomized. I’m not sure about other senses.
– A few days ago, Aleksandr Kynev, the well-known Russian sociologist and election specialist, said that the protest situation would be different in the country if a large number of civic activists hadn’t left the country in February 2022. Do you agree with that?
— Understandably, the departure of a large number of active, oppositionally inclined people changed the correlation of forces in Russia, but I don’t think this is a significant factor. No one left remote Bashkiria, and it flared up there.
On the whole, I don’t like discussions about ‘what might have happened if. . . .’ If they hadn’t left but had stayed in Russia and had had the opportunity to go out and protest, this would have been a different regime and a different political situation overall.