A tale of two Russian protests
People stand on the tightly packed Bolotnaya Sqare during an authorized opposition protest against the alleged mass fraud in the December 4 parliamentary polls in central Moscow, on December 10, 2011. (Getty Images)
December 12th, 2011
08:10 PM ET

A tale of two Russian protests

Editor's Note: Jeffrey Mankoff is an adjunct fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program and a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City.

By Jeffrey Mankoff - Special to CNN

On December 10, 2011, tens of thousands of mostly middle class Russians gathered on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square to protest widespread allegations of fraud in recent parliamentary elections. As the police stood by, the protestors marched, held signs and called for real democracy in place of the imitation created under Vladimir Putin. They then peacefully dispersed. The protests offered a heartening example of popular mobilization in a country where politics have become increasingly virtual under Putin’s “managed democracy.”

They also ran counter to a long-standing belief that the only groups capable of mass mobilization in Russia are extreme nationalists. This argument is not wholly unreasonable. Almost exactly one year before the Bolotnaya Square protests, the scene in downtown Moscow was very different. On December 11, 2010, thousands extreme nationalists gathered outside the walls of the Kremlin on Manezhnaya Square to protest the killing of an ethnic Russian soccer fan by a Chechen.

While the protesters chanted slogans against the government, their main target was non-Russian minorities. When police tried to disperse the increasingly belligerent crowd, the protest degenerated into a riot. Protestors fled to the metro, where they set upon anyone with dark skin they could find, injuring dozens.

These two Moscow protests - Bolotnaya and Manezhnaya - are the two faces of what Russian democracy could look like should the grip of Putin and his United Russia party be loosened. Russian leaders, including Putin, have long argued that the dark force of Russian nationalism lurks just below the surface and that a strong hand was needed to keep it in check. The Bolotnaya protests are an encouraging sign that other, healthier forces are at work in Russian society - ones that the Kremlin would be smart to engage in a dialogue about political reform. A controlled, consensual process of liberalization will give legitimacy to the forces of Bolotnaya. A resistance to fundamental reform will create more Manezhnayas.

The Kremlin argues that extreme nationalism is an elemental force in Russian society, but in fact, the authorities have done much to strengthen and legitimate it as part of their strategy for keeping power. While banning hardcore nationalist groups such as Slavic Union, the Kremlin has co-opted Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats, who still spout extreme rhetoric, but vote reliably with the government and provide a safe outlet for nationalist discontent. The Kremlin’s notorious rabble-rousing youth group Nashi plays a similar role.

After the Manezhnaya riots, Putin laid a wreath on the grave of the soccer fan whose murder touched off the violence, and hinted that the authorities would consider starting to curb migration to Moscow and other cities. This tolerance for nationalism in politics helps legitimate extremism. It also contributes to the raft of ethnically motivated crimes from which Russia suffers, including dozens of murders each year and frequent brawls between skinheads and minority youths.

Even as they play the nationalist card, Russia’s leaders invoke the specter of extremism as an excuse for maintaining their rigid, controlled political system. They argue that, in the words of one well-connected analyst, Putin is more liberal than 90% of the population, and that mass mobilization would only empower the groups who rioted on Manezhnaya Square, not the disaffected middle class protestors at the forefront of the Bolotnaya protests.

As in the Middle East, the danger that liberalization would benefit the extremists is real but probably overstated, especially if the Kremlin pursues genuine political reform that addresses many of the demands made by the Bolotnaya protestors. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Russia’s nationalists are not a well-organized, well-financed underground, but rather a motley collection of mostly disaffected young people without a coherent ideology or political program.

Official tolerance, and the absence of real opposition parties elsewhere on the political spectrum, gives them a degree of legitimacy they would otherwise lack. Moreover, the Bolotnaya protests demonstrated that the dichotomy between Putin’s authoritarianism on the one hand, and the Manezhnaya thugs on the other, is a false one.

To be sure, the Bolotnaya protestors were mostly educated, middle class Muscovites. Outside of Moscow and a few other cities, this demographic is much sparser. With a new round of protests now scheduled for December 24, an important indicator of the movement’s future will be how many people, and what sort, come out to protest, especially in places other than Moscow.

Despite this caveat, Putin and his allies are overstating the danger that Russia’s nascent reform movement will be hijacked by hardcore nationalists. Having a serious dialogue about reform offers a more promising way forward for the country than continuing its cynical minuet with Russian nationalism.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jeffrey Mankoff.

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Topics: Protests • Russia

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    The revenues from oil and gas made economic growth possible during Putin’s 8 year presidency. Not all benefit from the country’s wealth. The die-hard Communists, the elderly and the less educated have fallen victims to social Darwinism. Putin had also constructed a political system that prevents any serious rival from rising.

    December 13, 2011 at 6:04 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Medvedev during his presidency wants to reform as he understands Maslow’s pyramid of human needs. The urban middle class wants more than material comfort. Putin seeks support among the nationalist, extremist groups who feel disenfranchised.

      December 13, 2011 at 6:13 am | Reply
      • Alexander

        This is ABSOLUTELY WRONG. The main support for Putin comes from local bureaucracy - Governors of Russia's regions, mayors of large cities, and big businesses - the heads of Gazprom, RossNeft, RussAl, BaseElement, Norilsk Nickel, Lukoil, Renova, etc, each and everyone of them are all active supporters of Putin and active contributers to Uniter Russia Party.

        December 13, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        True, Alexander, Putin's agenda is also to spark nationalism. In these extremist groups he found the best proponents!

        December 14, 2011 at 5:36 am |
      • Alexander

        No, absolutely not. There are several nationalistic groups in Russia which do not comprise an integral movement, and, in fact barely tolerate each other. All of them are marginal and play no role in the mainstream politics. Putin has nothing to do with them, and, in fact, they are nothing else but a straight nuisance for Putin. Furthermore none of the mainstream political parties have ever did something which can be even remotely interpreted as "playing nationalist card".

        Fact: the most prominent blogger in Russia Alexey Navalny was once a member of Yabloko party. He was kicked out for ...his nationalism - he was noticed once among or nearby a crowd which were chanting nationalists slogans. Accusing Navalny in nationalism in a nonsense on its own and act of political correctness blown out of proportion.

        Fact: Remember the scandal between billionaire Prokhorov and Right Cause Party scandal about to month ago? A prominent member of Right Cause (forgot his name ... it is kind of ironic to be called prominent member of a party which gets only 0.7% of votes) was kicked out by Prokhorov for nationalism. Again, political correctness blown out of proportion.

        Fact: Zhirinivsky, the leader of LDPR has some views which may be interpreted as nationalism, especially when he it talking while drank on YouTube. In reality nationalist groups reject Zhirinovsky as a nationalist because of his Jewish background. They just never talk to him. When accepting people into their groups they enforce very strict control of spelling one's last name, patronym, (these must be strictly Slavic) and make sure that person can pronounce solid Russian RRR ("French accent" or German softening of R slightly toward soft L are absolutely not acceptable). They also pay attention to curly hairs of certain type. Zhirinovski miserably fails all these tests.

        THE BOTTOM LINE is that the only place in Russia you can meet any of these nationalist groups are the OPPOSITION meetings.

        BY THE WAY: There are several flags visible in the photograph above. The meaning of these flags are as follows, from left to right:

        1. Yellow-white-black horizontal stripes (colors of Imperial flags of Russia) are used exclusively by nationalists of various kinds. It is hard to tell which particular group is present. Note that this flag appears twice in this photograph, on the left in foreground, and on the right further away behind Dark-red-and white, and left from blue-yellow.

        2. White with uppercase letters "уходи" just protest against Putin. Purely protest not specifically associated with any party or political movement.

        3. Darker-red with white (Darker-red is similar to colors of stripes on US flag) is flag of Just Russia Party (or Fair Russia).

        4. Blue-with-yellow-letters LDPR/Zhirinovsky.

        5. Orange (single-color flag) "Solidarity" movement of Nemtsov (This is movement in allegedly funded by Freedom House and USAID).

        December 14, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  2. Onesmallvoice

    Did either the C.I.A. or the most notorious British MI-6 have a hand in this, I'd like to know? What is know is that the U.S., Great Britain and France all want a weak Russia like is was under the regime of Boris Yeltsin back in the 1990's. This way these countries can carry out their global ambitions unimpeded!

    December 13, 2011 at 7:52 am | Reply
    • John

      How true that is, Onesmallvoice. Both the C.I.A. and the British MI-6 have agents everywhere these days with no telling just how much damage they're up to!!!

      December 13, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  3. tasha_tasha

    All meeting on Manegnaya squere (not on Bolotnaya) was paid Putin's party. Cost 10 dollars. So if you want to participate on a side of Putin's party they pay you 10 dollars for this. That is why so many people came to Bolotnaya to say Putin "Go out" and everybody for free. But nobody don't want to vote for his party or stay on his meeting for free. You can search on youtube this text "Правда о митинге ЕдРа на Манежке 12 декабря" and you'll see the queue for payment after meeting. Adn everybody in Russia knows that. It's a shame for our goverment!

    December 13, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  4. BD

    "the authorities have done much to strengthen and legitimate it as part of their strategy for keeping power"

    Well said. L2Proof

    December 13, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  5. Alexander

    Reading this article and the comment afterward, I see that most opinions expressed are dominated by old fashion stereotypes which were dominating United States for the last 50 years and are still dominating. A classical phrase from j. von hettlingen "The die-hard Communists, the elderly and the less educated have fallen victims to social Darwinism" just illustrates this beyond the need for further commenting. Where did Mr. J. von Hettlingen saw die-hard Communists in Russia? May be in their coffins next to Kremlin Wall adjacent to Red Square?

    The truth is that during the last 10 years Russian Communist Party has rejuvenated itself more than any other party and tuned its political platform and rhetorics to address modern needs. Yes, it is still called "Communist Party" because this is THE BRAND NAME, same as the most popular chocolade is called "Red October" and renaming it to something else would be a commercial suicide. For the same reason Aeroflot keeps hammer and circle in its logo, one of the most popular and most progressive theaters in Moscow is still called "Lencom" (the full name behind this abbreviation is All-Union Lenin's Young Communist Organization Theater). For the same reason Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington DC is still called Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington DC, i.e., named after S. M. Kirov, a communist leader of St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) in 193x.

    This is what my American friends do not comprehend flat.

    December 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Thank you Alexander for your comment. It's most unfortunate that I haven't visited your beloved country and see all these changes you described with my own eyes. I love Russian culture – ballet (Maya Plissetskaya was my idol), music (Tchaikovsky is my favourite composer), arts (I love Shishikin's paintings), literature (I have many favourite poets and writers) and history etc
      I follow the events unfolded in your country very closely on BBC and other European channels and I meet and talk to Russians here in Europe. I am glad that the Russian Communist Party has re-invented itself but there are still die-hard Communists around, as the demise of the Sovjet Union took place just 20 years ago.

      December 13, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Reply
      • Andy

        Dear J.Von Hettlingen, the main opposition to Putin in Russia now is the Communist Party of Russia. These two, United Russia and Communists are the fighters but the others are observers and not popular at all. But most Russians prefer Putin than going back to the past. Let these "die-hard Communists, the elderly and the less educated" be angry. I rather let Putin play with the votes than to see hammer and the SICKLE in Russian Duma.

        December 16, 2011 at 7:22 am |
    • nirvichara

      Alexander, your rants are typical liberal russian kitchen crap – as for die hard communists – look at Zyuganov and his party..They got astonishing 20% in the last elections and they are mostly die-hard communists.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:47 am | Reply
      • Alexander

        Seriously? Are you trying to accuse me of being a liberast? No, I am not. Nor am I a communist sympathiser.

        All what I want to say is the today's situation when one has choice between having the feeling of election being flawed with some votes added to United Russia and having honest election at the expense of having more Communists in Duma, I personally prefer the second option. If more communists are coming as the result of honest elections so be it. Do not like them - do not vote for them next time.

        Were is Egor Ligachev? or chief ideologist Kravets? or other colorful figures from the past.

        Besides, what is a big deal? A little bit more communists in Duma is actually useful because it would prevent United Russia from giving wet-n-sloppy b l o w j o b to Putin every time, even if he himself did not ask for it.

        December 16, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • bob clark

      @Alexander, one question I have always had but never gotten a good answer for while I was working in Russia. "When Germany collapsed/conquered in 1945 ALL slogans of naziism and the swastikas were taken down. When Russia changed to a democracy under yeltsin, many Lenin statues were taken away but not all." During my time living in Peter, I saw many buildings with the old wheat laurels on the upper walls for the CCCP still up. Why ?

      December 16, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Reply
      • Alexander

        Because Stalin is not equal to Hitler, contrary many popular beliefs which liberasts both in Russia and in the West are trying to impose.

        The logic I often hear is that "Stalin is an evil guy, therefore everything he did is evil, therefore Soviet Union is Evil Empire. Dismantle it all". We have been through this paranoia of this sado-mazo self-confession during the late 198x - beginning 199x. We survive this childish illness and grew up from it. West did not. But this is a western problem, not ours.

        What I am saying in response to that is that one should not judge Stalin. On should judge ACTIONS made by Stalin, and not in a summary fashion, but judge each episode separately while placing them into the specific historical context of the time he lived in. Then everything starts making sense. And yes, we are not ashamed to have Stalin in our history, even though we know exactly and acknowledge everything what he did and what he did not do.

        December 16, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
      • Oleg from Saint Petersburg

        Dear Bob! It's just "Pofigism". Frankly speaking we consider this to be elements of decor.

        December 18, 2011 at 6:42 am |
      • Alexander

        This is true: they are often viewed by Russian people as elements of decor which "were always been there" so people got used to them and basically do not care. This however DOES NOT ANSWER THE QUESTION our western pals have asked. So is it just a matter of time before you remove all these symbols? May be some financial help is needed? A grant? A Turkish company specializing on facade remodeling?

        I believe

        Besides the question our western pals are asking can be formulated as folows:

        When are you going to finally confess and apologize for the crimes committed by occupying
        the freedom-loving people of Europe and imposing on them your brutal communist regime?

        December 18, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  6. Alexander

    Have to bread a large post into smaller pieces, othewise CNN won't post without. ...continue.

    This is about symbols outlived their original meaning and got new meaning.

    Lets take the red star. It was Lev Davidovich Bronshtein (a Jew also known as Leon Trotsky) who first tried to invent a new symbol for the newly formed revolutionary army. Being a Jew, he got into Kabballah books, and came up with five-edged star. Not surprising. Interestingly enough, his goal was to make a symbol which is completely free of any religious context (crosses in any form were instantly and completely ruled out). One can argue that star is also a religious symbol, but jewishness was not common in Russia and for ordinary people five-edged star bear no religious content. In fact, it was considered, still considered, and deliberately selected as anti-religious. Originally Trotsky painted it blue, but fellow comrades corrected him: it should be red, after all it meant for The Red Army. Thus far it is not a big deal: a brand logo created and registered with local copyright office. However, after it was used as symbol for an army, and that army made victories of battles, and eventually a major war, the symbol got a very different meaning and got life independent of its creator: it became completely irrelevant that Trotsky was a Jew, and he was demoted from all his positions, expelled from the Party and eventually from the Country.

    December 13, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  7. Alexander

    ...continue about symbols outlived their original meaning Stalingrad... same story. The city was named after Stalin somewhen during 193x (nobody remembers exactly when and why). Today it is emembered and predominantly associated with the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad. Forget Stalin: renaming this city was an act of sacrifice of historic glory for the sake of one-minute political correctness. Stupid, at best. How many Americans know what is the name of this city today without looking at Wikipedia? And what was its name before being Stalingrad?

    This list goes on and on.

    In 2007 members of Party of Crooks and Thieves (also known as United Russia, and sometimes known in the west as "putin's party") were sitting in State Duma seriously considered law to remove the Hammer and Circle from the Victory Flag - this is one of the flag which was raised over Reihstag in Berlin, 1945 as symbol of Victory. Crooks and Thieves wanted to remove Hammer and Circle as a measure to divorce "the country" (this is how they often call Russia) from its communist past because they thought that it is politically correct. Communist were objecting, of course, but could not do anything about because they were minority. In the end it was Putin who told The Crooks and Thieves "Stop, you idiots!" Which they did. Basically he said that the historic symbol should be preserved EXACTLY AS IS, "150 st. order of Kutuzov II Idritskaya div, 79 s.k. 3 u..a., 1 B.F." with star, hammer and circle.

    These are just few examples of symbols and names in today Russia.

    If my American friends (including Fareed) would get some of the ideas expressed above, they can probably understand what is going on, and, in fact, going wrong with these elections and the protests in Russia. More importantly, distinguish between real and fake political forces. Otherwise, it is helpless.

    December 13, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The Sovjet symbol was the hammer and the SICKLE!
      The problem today is that democracy is still nascent in Russia, it takes time for the country to evolve. Twenty years are not enough to transform the whole nation. The protests are just the beginning of this process

      December 14, 2011 at 6:01 am | Reply
      • Oleg from Saint Petersburg

        From my point of view the process of evolution is on. For a year or so. And the protests are only visible signs of it.

        December 18, 2011 at 6:49 am |
  8. Alexander

    This is true: they are often viewed by Russian people as elements of
    decor which "were always been there" so people got used to them and do
    not care. This however DOES NOT ANSWER THE QUESTION our western pals
    have asked. So is it just a matter of time before you remove all these
    symbols? May be some financial help is needed? A grant? A Turkish
    company specializing on facade remodeling?

    December 18, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Reply
    • Alexander

      Besides the question our western pals are asking can be formulated as folows:

      When are you going to finally confess and apologize for the crimes committed by occupying the
      freedom-loving people of Europe and imposing on them your brutal communist-stalinist regime?

      December 18, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  9. M Shareef Gishkori

    The gender chart regarding your own home, a state whether it's northeastern, midwest or even west coastline that you think will catch a person's eye of an euro femaleRussian woman for marriage

    January 28, 2012 at 8:37 am | Reply
  10. Olympia

    Global Debt Crisis

    The greatest private fraud of human history.
    Who are the great fraudsters who are becoming the murderers of the human kind? How does the economy "illness" threaten Democracy and the freedom of people?

    By knowing what happened in indebted Greece, where loan sharks created “bubbles” and the current inhuman debt, one can understand the inhuman plan in total ...understand where this plan started just to bring all states at the same end ...understand how this type of plans are established...


    February 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply

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