Financial crisis + South Park = trouble for Putin?

Human Rights First Tonight, the organization Human Rights First will give out its annual Human Rights Awards in New York. One of the honorees is 24-year-old Russian activist Oleg Kozlovsky. In 2005, Kozlovsky helped found Oborona (Defense), a youth democracy movement modeled on Serbia’s Otpor and Ukraine’s Pora, the student groups that played a critical ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
591887_081023_kozlovsky5.jpg
591887_081023_kozlovsky5.jpg

Human Rights First

Tonight, the organization Human Rights First will give out its annual Human Rights Awards in New York. One of the honorees is 24-year-old Russian activist Oleg Kozlovsky. In 2005, Kozlovsky helped found Oborona (Defense), a youth democracy movement modeled on Serbia's Otpor and Ukraine's Pora, the student groups that played a critical role in those countries' democratic revolutions.

For his troubles, Kozlovsky has been arrested more than a dozen times, served three prison sentences, and spent the 2007 Russian presidential elections at a remote military base after being illegally conscripted into the Army. (As a university student, he should have been exempt from the draft.)

Human Rights First

Tonight, the organization Human Rights First will give out its annual Human Rights Awards in New York. One of the honorees is 24-year-old Russian activist Oleg Kozlovsky. In 2005, Kozlovsky helped found Oborona (Defense), a youth democracy movement modeled on Serbia’s Otpor and Ukraine’s Pora, the student groups that played a critical role in those countries’ democratic revolutions.

For his troubles, Kozlovsky has been arrested more than a dozen times, served three prison sentences, and spent the 2007 Russian presidential elections at a remote military base after being illegally conscripted into the Army. (As a university student, he should have been exempt from the draft.)

Kozlovsky was in Washington yesterday and kindly agreed to stop by FP‘s offices to talk about the future of the Russian opposition movement and how the financial crisis will affect the Putin regime:

So far, the impact of the crisis on Russian politics hasn’t been that huge because it hasn’t really affected a lot of Russians. However, it’s clear that the crisis is going to affect more people in the coming months so what we can expect is that people will understand that the economic stability that was, in their minds, connected to Putin’s rule, is over.

This is a very bad signal for Putin because his support was mainly based on the economic growth that we experienced for 10 years. This is a chance for the democratic opposition to explain to people how this crisis is connected to the policies that have been conducted for eight years and the political system that we have now, particularly the corruption, lack of rule of law, and lack of property rights… However cynical it may sound, we need a crisis in Russia to wake people up.

Unfortunately, this is hardly what ordinary Russians hear from their mass media, which in recent weeks has been reassuring viewers that Russia can weather the storm and that any problems are the fault of the United States. How can groups like Oborona cut through the filter?

It’s hard to get the message out. We mostly have to communicate with people directly through street actions ranging from graffiti paintings to big protest rallies like the dissenters march. We are also quite active on the Internet, where the majority of our potential audience resides because we mostly work with well-educated youth.

But while Oborona and similar groups have successfully built a dynamic online community, translating this into real-world activism is more difficult:

It is really two different things to be politically active online and do something offline. For example, a blogger and activist from Oborona was persecuted in the city of Kemerovo in Siberia for posting some entries on his blog that were actually reports on the activities of the police and FSB [Federal Security Service]. For that he was charged with distributing extremist information and may face up to two years imprisonment. We started a campaign in his defense and in a matter of a couple of days we gathered about 500 signatures. However when we organized an offline street action in Moscow for him we only managed to gather about 15 people and half of them were organizers.

All the same, some recent victories have given Kozlovsky hope. One recent campaign was inspired by an unlikely event, the cancellation of a certain foul-mouthed American cartoon:

The government tried to take the license from a TV channel called 2X2 for broadcasting South Park. The series was considered extremist by a court ruling in Russia, but the channel is very popular with Russian youth. Some of this channel’s fans organized a protest rally against its closing and the government decided not to pull the license. It only took several days for the civil activists to solve this problem and many of them were participating in such a campaign for the first time in their lives. Many of them didn’t believe they could change anything. Such small campaigns are very important for building Russian civil society.

The South Park revolution? Has a nice ring to it.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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