A few years ago, Vladimir Putin‘s approval rating was stable – up to 90 percent of Russians trusted and supported their president and wanted to elect him again. But with recent mass protests all over the country, the situation has changed. This summer, nearly 40 percent of Russians said they would not vote for Putin again, even though his image and rhetoric have not really changed from the previous years. So what has changed?
The likely answer is – the age of politically active people. After years of turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, stability was something that everyone craved.
“In the modern world, extremism is being used as a geopolitical instrument and for remaking spheres of influence. We see what tragic consequences the wave of so-called color revolutions led to,” Putin said in 2014. “For us this is a lesson and a warning. We should do everything necessary so that nothing similar ever happens in Russia.”
And the majority of Russians supported the idea. However, as generations have changed, the country has started to see more protests organized by predominantly young people who wanted more than just stability. They react to all developments in the country, ranging from assaults on media freedom and wildfires in Siberia.
Moscow has seen the biggest protests for years — with tens of thousands hitting the streets
What's behind the action?
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) August 13, 2019
Protests in the Capital
After Putin’s trust rating hit a historic low of 31.7 percent this May, state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center had to change the metric they used for measuring it. The following month, thanks to the new methodology, the rating saw a dramatic increase. That, however, was the only good piece of news President Putin received this summer.
For the fifth week in a row, all sorts of protests are taking place in Moscow, exploding ever since the Moscow Election Commission banned all oppositional candidates from participating in the city council election arranged for September. On Saturdays – July 27, August 3 and August 10 – thousands of Russians went to the streets of the capital and other big cities calling for fair elections.
“The effect of rallies on the Central Election Commission’s decisions is zero. Zero!” Ella Pamfilova, the commission’s chair, said. Despite the claim, the next massive rally is planned for Saturday, August 17.
It has become “normal” in Russia that oppositional politicians are banned from participating in elections of any kind. The Moscow city council does not have much power. For the last 18 years, it was controlled by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Yet the protests turned an ordinary election into Russia’s biggest public outcry in the last eight years, proving it is not just about local governance anymore.
“I’m tired of all this mess in the country,” Alexei Yurchuk, a protester, told The Globe Post. “I didn’t come to support [prominent opposition leader Alexei] Navalny or fair elections, I came to support life.”
Yurchuk has participated in three main rallies in a row, although he does not live in Moscow but in a small town close to it. “It’s even worse there. At least it’s easier to find a job in Moscow. In my town, people can’t afford to pay bills for municipal engineering services.”
According to human rights activists, the total number of people arrested during the three rallies exceeded 2,500 people. Among them, there were many pedestrians, journalists, tourists and even a husband of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party member who simply intended to cross a street. Dozens of detainees were beaten by the police, some of them were hospitalized with severe injuries. No inquiries against police brutality have been made, even though many incidents were filmed and reported by eyewitnesses.
Nevertheless, 50,000 people participated in a rally in Moscow on August 10, making it the biggest one since 2011.
— World News Network (@worldnewsdotcom) August 13, 2019
Wildfires in Siberia
Apart from elections without opposition, another thing that regularly happens in Russia is Siberian wildfires. Every year fire destroys hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest. Local authorities proved themselves incapable of stopping this epidemic, which did not add points to the Putin establishment’s rating.
The 2019 wildfires have a chance to become the most devastating in the history of satellite observations, Greenpeace has warned. According to satellite data, 4.5 million hectares of forest is burning, and only 6 percent of fires are being suppressed. The fires can be seen from space and their smoke has reached the U.S. and Canada.
“Rural fires destroyed the area around Dzhebariki-Khaya, a village in Yakutia where I grew up,” Anastasia Fedorova, who lived in the affected area, told The Globe Post. “There’re no firemen. Locals are protecting the village themselves using controlled burn. But the worst of all is air pollution, it won’t go without harm. And there’s no health care, at all.”
“It hurts to see how the village is left on its own, how the state doesn’t need it, how it’s only exhausting natural resources and how nature got angry. It is very painful to see how a piece of me burns,” she added.
Siberian authorities have a different perspective on the problem. “This is a common natural phenomenon. It is meaningless to fight it and somewhere, perhaps even harmful,” Krasnoyarsk Krai governor Alexander Us claimed. He also said that fire suppression was “economically impractical.”
Two days after the claim, two thousand people went on to protest in the regional capital Krasnoyarsk calling for Us to step down. The social media outcry related to the situation drew the world’s attention to the problem. As a result, U.S. President Donald Trump offered Putin his help, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio called the wildfires “the latest sign of a climate crisis.”
“The forest fires were the boiling point that prompted the people to take to the streets,” Krasnoyarsk resident Ruslan Farmanov said.
Firefighters continue to battle the wildfires raging north of Russia's Lake Baikal. In this view from Japan's #Himawari8 satellite, you can see thick plumes of smoke swirling over the region. More imagery: https://t.co/SLkHL1UGTD pic.twitter.com/us6hI6JPjY
— NOAA Satellites (@NOAASatellites) August 5, 2019
After investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was arrested in Moscow on drug-related charges on June 7, thousands of Russians all over the country rallied in his support. His colleagues and friends affirmed the charges were fabricated and motivated by Golunov’s anti-corruption investigations.
“There was an impulse [to support Golunov], it was a situation when it was impossible not to,” Anastasia Sechina, a journalist and a coordinator of protests in the city of Perm, told The Globe Post. She added that the rallies brought together five local media outlets and four of them are working jointly on investigative articles.
Thanks to the outcry, Golunov’s case was closed just in four days.
“As a result of complex biological, fingerprinting, forensic and genetic examinations, it was decided to terminate the criminal prosecution of a citizen Golunov, withdraw charges due to the lack of evidence of his involvement in the crime,” Minister of Internal Affairs Vladimir Kolokoltsev announced.
“Maybe the understanding that the protest spread beyond the capital played the key role. Maybe activity in Moscow would have been enough. Who knows?” Sechina wondered.
When Oleg Kashin, a political reporter, was almost killed near his home in Moscow in 2010, there were no mass rallies. A decade has passed, generations have changed, and people stood up for Golunov, even though participating in and organizing unauthorized mass rallies can be qualified as a crime. Punishment varies from days to years in jail, depending on the role and luck of the defendant.
The next day after Golunov was released, a planned rally in his support was held in Moscow. Participants called for the prosecution of those responsible for fabrications of criminal cases. More than 400 protesters were detained, including opposition leader Navalny.
— Борис Золотаревский (@ZolotorevskiyB) August 10, 2019
New Generation, New Rules
A few years ago, it was hard to imagine a situation in which thousands of Russians all over the country would risk their freedom to rescue a journalist. They would not gather in the city center to show their governor that he was wrong, as they did in Krasnoyarsk. And they would not rally to give opposition candidates a chance to participate in a local election.
The main force behind the ongoing protests is young people in their teens and twenties. They barely remember Russia without President Putin, and they are more politically active than older generations.
— Денис Королёв (@DenisKorolev96) August 10, 2019
“This is the so-called ‘Putin Generation,’ the young generation that cannot be scared off by pointing to the awful situation in the 1990s, because this has been the main political strategy by the political engineers in the Kremlin. Those who were born in (the) ‘90s don’t remember the demise of the Soviet Union, they don’t remember the economic hardships,” Ulrich Schmid, professor of Russian Culture and Society at St. Gallen University in Switzerland, said earlier this month.
This generation grew up having internet access and therefore an opportunity to get unbiased information. They distrust state-controlled TV, a primary source of information for their parents. And they are teaching their parents to get the news from the internet, not TV. This huge demographic group became more mature and strong in recent years and it treasures opportunities more than stability. Young generation wants to be heard and it proved its ability to make the regime hear their demands.
В 14 лет нас с одноклассником чуть не повязали за белые ленточки на запястье во время инаугурации Путина. Спустя много лет суть власти осталась та же, но изменилось наше мышление.
— Варвара (@PashchaV) August 10, 2019
“Those young people who came out on the street were absolutely fearless,” Konstantin Remchukov, the proprietor and editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said reflecting on recent rallies in Moscow in his interview with The National Interest.
“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. This is new — that people go out, and that they believe that standing for their positions — especially moral positions — was more important than anything else. And it is a very, very stark shift in the mood of this young generation.”