Public dissatisfaction, protest and narrow opportunity structures in Russia

Anatoly Reshetnikov, Webster University and Tobias Spöri, d|part

When the protests in Russia in response to Alexey Navanlny’s detention started on January 17, many hoped this could be the beginning of a democracy movement. After Navalny’s team published a video on YouTube a few days later showing a luxurious palace that allegedly belongs to President Putin, tens of thousands took to the streets across the country to protest against corruption, economic hardship and the government in general.

However, there is little hope for swift democratization of Russia, as the opportunity structures for protest are narrow. In our view, one possible way forward is to slowly generate more resonance and public support in Russian society backed by a smart local mobilization strategy, which the so-called ‘non-systemic’ (i.e. uncoopted by the regime) opposition is currently trying out. Having increased their country-wide visibility, Navalny’s team is urging to form neighbourhood assemblies, retreating somewhat from more open confrontation with law enforcement. Their partial success, however, may become fleeting, if they fail to balance the risks this involves.

Narrow opportunities for the opposition

Considering the political opportunities (McAdam 1996) for a success of such protest in Russia, many avenues seem to be closed. By now, political power is highly concentrated and almost completely sealed off. Political competition is skewed and elections are not free and fair (Golosov 2018). The elites form a ‘single-pyramid network’ with a ‘chief patron’ on top (Magyar and Madlovics 2020: 83-84). The democratically-minded civil society has no allies in power, while the state capacity and propensity to repression is graphically demonstrated at every unsanctioned protest.

One strategy the opposition can still rely on is to further increase public visibility, online or in form of protests, and relate their claims to issues many people face in their daily lives. These range from individual economic hardship to dissatisfaction with corruption. Since the prevailing official public discourse is controlled by the state, the opposition has little chance to reach out to the majority of the population or connect ‘their claims and identities [with the] prevailing discourses in the public domain’ (Guigni 2009: 364).

True, the general picture is not optimistic. The Levada Center, the main Russian independent, nongovernmental polling organization, reports that, as of February 2021, 56% of the population disapprove of Navalny’s activities, while 13% do not know him. Moreover, only 22% have a positive attitude towards the January protesters, while 37% and 39% have neutral or rather negative attitudes respectively. Moreover, Putin remains Russia’s most trusted politician. As of February 2021, 32% include Putin in the their personal list of most trusted politicians, while only 4% include Navalny.

Still, in diachronic and generational perspectives, Navalny’s achievement seems phenomenal, especially given his zero access to national television. From 94% of the population who either never heard of Navalny or disapproved of his activities in 2013, he managed to secure complete support of his actions from some 20% of the population by January 2021, with 12% undecided. Naturally, Navalny’s support also varies across population groups who use different information channels (26-27% support among social media users). In parallel, the share of social media users has increased from 14% in 2013 to 38% in 2021, while television lost almost 20% of its audience, and even more so in terms of trust. All this looks promising for a democratic opposition in Russia. The January protests and the enormous success of the video about Putin’s palace (nearly 114 million views on YouTube as of March 2, 2021) show resonance in society and public support for anti-corruption claims.

New strategy of the non-systemic opposition

After the brutal crackdown of the protests, the opposition adopted a new decentralized strategy inspired by the opposition movement in Belarus and other democratic movements. Not unlike the neighbourhood assemblies in Buenos Aires (Forment 2019), in today’s Russia small groups of like-mined citizens meet in their neighborhoods to enact solidarity on the local level. This kind of democratic engagement is not only more difficult to repress, it also connects people better. They get to know each other, discuss politics and can learn to organize themselves. This also had the sobering effect that it made people realize how few they were and how much more organizational work still needed to be done.

Nevertheless, in Russia, where local community ties have been weakened substantially since the 1990s, bottom-level organization is key. A fair share of Russian civil society have realized this, and many local initiatives have achieved success in both openly antagonistic and relatively cooperative interactions with the regime. For instance, last year a grassroot movement protesting a colossal landfill site in Arkhangelsk Region managed, against all odds, to oust Muscovite Kremlin-backed developers. From time to time, more amicable interaction between the civil society and the regime also bears fruit, for example in the government-backed local initiative Your Budget. The challenge that Navalny’s team is facing is how to utilize that local window of opportunity (1) without entering into open conflict with the Kremlin and (2) keeping this kind of resistance broadly popular and connected.

The prospects of future protests

Generally, the opportunity structures for anti-government protest in Russia are likely to remain the same in the coming months, maybe years. Yet, the possibility of resonance in the wider society is growing day by day. The Levada poll highlights that almost half of the younger generation (48%) are dissatisfied with politics, stating that the country is moving in the wrong direction. In the recent protests, many people took to the streets not to support Navalny, but to raise their voices to express their dissatisfaction with the economic situation, the restriction of public life and to take a stance against the government. Navalny’s video and arrest were mere triggers. However, his increased visibly and public support combined with a new strategy of neighborhood assemblies may forge broader coalitions. If this level of public discontent remains or even increases and people continue to connect at the local level, a new wave of protest is possible.

Anatoly Reshetnikov is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Webster University (Austria). Anatoly holds a PhD in Political Science from Central European University. Previously, he has been a Visiting Researcher at the University College London (UK) and Lund University (Sweden), and a grantee of the Swedish Institute. Anatoly’s research interests include identity politics, institutionalized political trolling, conceptual history, critical and linguistic approaches to social analysis, Historical International Relations, and Russia’s international politics.

Tobias Spöri is research fellow at the Berlin-based think tank d|part and a lecturer at the Department of Political Science of the University of Vienna. He has a PhD from the University of Vienna on political participation and generational effects in Central and Eastern Europe. His research focuses on political participation, social movements, Central and Eastern European politics.

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