Why young people are flocking to Russian protests

Protesters clash with police at Russian demo
Protesters clash with police at Russian demo

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  • Amy Mackinnon: The recent Russian protests are significant because of their size and the number of youth participating
  • But it's unlikely they will lead to democracy anytime soon, writes Mackinnon

Amy Mackinnon is a senior editor for the crisis reporting site CodaStory.com. While based in Moscow, she oversaw Coda Story's reporting on LGBT rights in Russia. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

(CNN)Bizarre scenes emerged Monday from Moscow as thousands of protesters chanting, "Putin is a thief!" and "Down with the Czar!" intermingled with costumed actors re-enacting scenes from Russian history to mark Russia Day, a national holiday.

But that wasn't the only unusual aspect.
Amy Mackinnon
Mass protests are a rare occurrence in Russia -- the last ones of this scale took place in the winter of 2011-12 in response to allegations of widespread vote rigging in parliamentary elections. What makes the recent protests -- which first began in March -- significant is their reach, engulfing almost 100 cities across the country and including the participation of Russian youth, once thought to be politically apathetic.
    Seventy children, in fact, were arrested in Moscow alone during a March protest.
    But it's not just the youth. While convincing the middle-class intelligentsia of Moscow and St. Petersburg to take to the streets is one thing, opposition politician Alexei Navalny's call to action has resonated in poorer, less developed regions, long thought to be Vladimir Putin's stronghold.
    Since he became president in 2000, Putin has consolidated his grip on power and thus is unlikely to be threatened by the recent protests. However, the Kremlin will undoubtedly be rattled by this new generation of political activism.
    The protests in the winter of 2011-12 were followed by a harsh crackdown which fundamentally changed the nature of Russian political life. With Putin likely to run for a fourth term in the March 2018 presidential elections, the question now is whether the Russian authorities will respond the same way again.
    Although young people here have only ever known Putin's Russia, the recent protests were notable for the unexpected number of their faces in the crowds. Barred from state TV, Navalny has taken to social media to get his message across, and it appears to have resonated among Russian youth -- a generation which lies beyond the reach of the potent state-owned media.
    Almost 23 million people have watched a Russian-language version of a video exposé in which Navalny details the alleged corruption of Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev. A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister has dismissed the claims made in the video as "propaganda insinuations."
    As Russian youth undergo a political awakening, the Kremlin appears to be resorting to old tactics. In the wake of the March protests, school children and university students across the country have reported being harassed and intimidated by the authorities.
    Several parents have been charged with "failure to execute child-rearing responsibilities" for allowing their children to attend gatherings in May. And the Speaker of the upper house of the Russian Parliament suggested that parliamentary committees should look into banning children from unsanctioned protests altogether.
    In a transparent attempt to woo the social media generation, Russian YouTube star Sasha Spilberg was invited to give a speech to a packed session of the Parliament last month. The move was part of an effort by Putin's United Russia party to "prevent the use of young people as a driving force in protests."
    To the envy of many an American politician, Navalny has not only struck a chord with young people. His campaigning on pocketbook issues which affect ordinary Russians has resonated in Russia's rust-belt cities as well.
    A recent report by Credit Suisse found that Russia is the most unequal of the world's major economies. As the country emerges from a two-year recession, Navalny's reports of corruption by Russian politicians -- notably that of Medvedev -- has enabled him to reach deep into the Russian heartland.
    While two-thirds of Russians hold Putin responsible for corruption, his approval ratings have stabilized at over 80% since the annexation of Crimea -- a hugely popular move in Russia. But the Prime Minister, who is seen as weak and responsible for Russia's economic woes, is an altogether easier target and provides the Kremlin with a ready scapegoat if necessary.
    Some 1,500 people were arrested after the protests in March, but the turnout at Monday's demonstrations would suggest that protestors remain undeterred by the consequences -- something the Kremlin will be hard-pressed to ignore.
    Human Rights Watch described as the crackdown following the 2011-12 protests as the worst since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Protest laws were tightened, while activists were harassed and imprisoned and Putin sought to blame then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for fermenting the unrest. New legislation branded many Russian NGOs as "foreign agents" if they receive funding from abroad -- often the only option available for Russian civil society organizations. Dozens were forced to close.
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    In search of a new narrative to rally the people around the President, Russian officials and the state-owned media began to talk of "Russian traditional values," which were juxtaposed with the supposedly hedonic West. The centerpiece of this new narrative was the controversial gay propaganda law, passed in 2013 in what many believe was an attempt to find a domestic scapegoat for Russian frustrations.
    The significance of the recent protests may well usher in change, but there is no guarantee that the change will be good. Democracy may continue to elude Russia -- for now at least.