Keep Your Eyes on the Protests in Russia’s Provinces

While the world watches Moscow for signs of unrest, hundreds of small-scale protests are heating up in Putin’s heartland.

Supporters of the Russian Communist Party attend a rally in central Moscow on April 8, 2017.  / AFP PHOTO / VASILY MAXIMOV        (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of the Russian Communist Party attend a rally in central Moscow on April 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / VASILY MAXIMOV (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

GUKOVO, Russia – Each morning, just before 11 a.m., Igor Litvinov leaves his work gutting chickens and sets off for the main square in this town of about 65,000 people in southern Russia. There he meets his wife, Irina, and together they join the group that has gathered every day for the past year on the cracked gray asphalt in front of the offices of Kingcoal Ltd., their former employer.

On a good day, when there’s no frost and the sun is bright, around 200 people protest; on colder days, like when I visited in early April, there are around 60. The mining company went bankrupt and closed two years ago, leaving 2,300 people in the Rostov region without a job. Even worse: The company stopped paying its workers in 2013, two years before the bankruptcy. The protesters are demonstrating for their back pay.

“What happened here is simple: The government stole our money,” Litvinov, 33, said, exposing a mouth full of gold crowns. Since closing, Kingcoal has settled its debts with about three-quarters of its former employees, but 78 million rubles, or around $1.4 million, of unpaid salaries remain unaccounted for, and Litvinov, a former miner, is one of the 600 still waiting. Irina Litvinova, who met her husband at the coal company, where she also worked, recalls coming to the protest site when she was pregnant. Now, the couple’s daughter is 10 months old. The 28-year-old currently stays at home looking after their child; she’d like to start working again in a few months but doubts she will find a job anytime soon.

The disgruntled former workers have made protesting part of their daily schedule, as routine as fetching a loaf of bread. They stand with their backs to Kingcoal. In front of them is a dilapidated statue of Lenin; his back, too, is turned toward the Kingcoal offices. It is in this position that they protest, Monday to Friday, for precisely one hour — the time allotted to them by the local government, who have granted permission to assemble. “We will come here in solidarity until the final person is given what’s owed to them,” said Larisa Antipova, 48, who had worked as a quality control inspector for the company.

Such scenes are becoming increasingly common across Russia, which is only now emerging from a two-year recession precipitated by Western sanctions and historically low oil prices. Last year saw more than 200 Russian protests over work-related issues, according to research by the Center for Economic and Political Reform, an independent Moscow-based organization. Protests were up by 34 percent in 2016 compared to 2015, according to monitoring by IHS Markit, a London-based analytics group. Just over half of these, like the one in Gukovo, came about as a result of missed or withheld salary payments.

The world took notice last month, when, unexpectedly, large-scale anti-corruption protests organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny rocked cities across Russia, leading to hundreds of arrests, including of many young people. The protests were widely seen as the first real challenge to the Kremlin in Russia in years. But it is the ongoing protests in President Vladimir Putin’s traditional heartland — places like Gukovo and elsewhere — which may be the better measure of how deep current discontent runs in Russia.

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Anyone who wants to see the breadth of anger in Russia can consult the interactive map that researchers at the Center for Economic and Political Reform have put online. On any given day, it shows bursts of activity erupt across the country’s 11 time zones like fires that need putting out. In cities and towns from the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea to more remote outposts in deep Siberia, there are more Igors, Irinas, and Larisas protesting their missing pensions or skipped paychecks.

These protests don’t necessarily pose a threat to the regime — yet. More often than not, in fact, the protesters appeal to Putin directly to intervene on their behalf, holding up signs saying “Putin, help us.” They use the informal form of address in Russian, making the request sound somewhat friendly. Last September, unemployed bus drivers in the city of Belgorod, midway between Moscow and Rostov, spelled out the phrase “Putin pomogi” with their yellow and white buses, and made a video of it from several hundred feet up, using a drone; the clip was viewed tens of thousands of times. Some say the direct overtures to Putin signal the strength of the Kremlin-approved narrative that Russians’ suffering stems from external factors such as Western sanctions and Russophobia or, at the very worst, the malfeasance of the country’s oligarchs — but that the Russian president himself is never to blame.

“Putin has become invincible. He’s the country’s supreme arbiter,” said Alex Kokcharov, a country risk analyst at IHS Markit. “This is extremely effective propaganda, similar to that of the 1930s,” he said, referring to a time when those being abused by Soviet security services sought the ear of Joseph Stalin, believing that if the head of the Soviet Union only knew what was happening, he would put a stop to it. It’s an echo, too, of the medieval-era Russian mantra: “The tsar is good, it is the boyars” — that is, the local aristocrats — “who are bad.” Putin’s latest approval ratings are a case in point: In March, the 64-year-old president’s popularity slipped ever so slightly to 82 percent, but remains at record levels, according to the Levada Center, an independent pollster.

But in Gukovo, the pleas to Putin have long since turned to anger directed against him and his ruling United Russia party. “Our country has become consumed by slavery and corruption,” retired miner Valery Dyakonov told me in his apartment, proudly decorated with photos of his grandchildren, in the small town of Zverevo in the Rostov region. Though he was unaffected financially by Kingcoal’s turmoil — he lives off his modest state pension — the fiercely patriotic and charismatic 66-year-old has become the de facto leader of the Gukovo demonstrators. Last summer, he was charged with threatening a police officer at a Gukovo rally with an air gun. Today, he is still under house arrest, and treats his black ankle monitor as a badge of honor. “For 20 years I didn’t see the sun, only rats,” he said in his small kitchen, where large jars of pickled cabbage reflect the morning light. “And now I’m a criminal.” Dyakonov can’t leave his town and is banned from traveling to nearby Gukovo. “The plague has come to Russia, and people are at breaking point. But I am against blood. We need a peaceful way to install a new government.”

The continuing standoff in Gukovo, which began in May last year, is considered one of the longest-running protests in the country, if not the longest. Staging an ongoing protest in modern Russia for this long is not easy: permission from local authorities is required if more than one person wants to participate in a public demonstration, and there is little tolerance for dissent; a green light, in other words, is hard to secure. Those who disobey the laws face fines and possible jail terms. In Gukovo, Kingcoal’s former employers are regularly filmed by policemen from several feet away, despite being within their rights.

The problems in Gukovo reflect the troubles in the broader Rostov region as a whole. In this former mining region near eastern Ukraine, snaking conveyer belts belonging to shuttered coal mines loom over barren landscapes. Occasionally, the scenery is punctuated by a solitary goat-herder. The few paved roads in the area are riddled with potholes.

Former miners say these protests — strictly regulated though they may be — are their sole recourse against Kingcoal. The only reason they received any of their money at all, they say, is because of the hunger strike they organized last summer, which captured national headlines.

Now the striking miners have started to receive flour and sugar handouts from the local Communist Party, which officially opposes the Putin government in parliament, but in practice is largely complacent. Dyakonov keeps in regular contact with the local Communist branch, and has formed a friendship with Valery Rashkin, the head of the Moscow branch of the Communist Party. Rashkin is a supporter of the Gukovo miners and is often critical of Russia’s widespread graft. Rashkin has brought some of the protesting miners to Moscow for talks with Communist lawmakers, though it remains to be seen if those meetings will bear fruit.

The large-scale demonstrations that stunned Russia last month and the small, localized protests like the one in Gukovo that have been taking place under the radar encompass two very different groups of protesters. Many of those who turned out in response to Navalny’s campaign were internet-savvy youths whom Putin has ruled since they were children; those protesting in the countryside and small towns tend to be older Russians who remember Soviet times and are more afraid of the Kremlin’s might. But the gulf between these two groups could be narrowing: On both sides of the spectrum, young and old, educated and working class, recent unrest has focused on the issue of corruption. In a poll released this month by Levada, Russians described Putin’s greatest achievements as strengthening the military and the country’s standing in the world; that’s in contrast to polls a decade ago, when he was applauded for his management of the economy. The Levada survey also found that 38 percent of Russians approved of the Navalny-organized protests, which focused on the ill-begotten riches of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Representatives for Kingcoal could not be reached for comment, and its website has disappeared. In mid-April, the company’s founder and CEO Vladimir Podizhdaev was sentenced by a regional court to five years in prison for failing to pay his workers and abuse of authority. For the miners, who view him as a thief, this brought a semblance of justice. But the most politically active among them say they believe Podizhdaev is low down on the pecking order, and that the real culprits are banking oligarchs connected to Putin who control most of Rostov’s mining industry, or what is left of it. U.S. and European sanctions — slapped on Russia after Moscow’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis, including the 2014 annexation of Crimea — have taken their toll on Russian oligarchs, many of whom have been banned from doing business in the West, and there are fears that cutting off this source of money has led to ramped-up corruption within Russia itself. Inequality in Russia runs deep, and is possibly the worst in the world according to Credit Suisse, with an estimated one-tenth of people holding almost 90 percent of the country’s wealth.

Putin has taken steps to crack down on the political rallies organized by Navalny. Hundreds were arrested for taking part in the unsanctioned anti-corruption rallies in March, including Navalny himself, who was put behind bars for 15 days. Russia’s parliament has now said it is considering a law that would allow security forces to shoot protesters at unsanctioned rallies, reminiscent of Ukraine’s Maidan protest massacre in early 2014, when sniper forces belonging to the Russia-backed government opened fire on huge crowds, killing more than 50 people. In a word of warning to the West, this month Putin said he would not allow the sort of “color revolutions” seen in Central Asia and the Caucasus to occur in Russia. An early test of the Kremlin’s commitment to stamping out protests could come this weekend, when opposition activists loyal to former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who lives in exile in London, are also planning to rally, despite being banned by the federal government.

The Kremlin has not yet signaled that it is losing patience with economic protests of the sort taking place in Gukovo. If these two very different groups of protesters do eventually find common ground, however, that could change. Following his release this month, Navalny released a new video, urging more protests to take place nationwide on June 12th. “Corruption is the biggest reason for poverty,” Navalny said in the short film. “Salaries are so low that people need to buy even shoes on credit.”

Navalny’s video is one that the Litvinovs, and many others like them, can relate to. “Our apartment, our car, our everything is on credit,” Irina said with a bemused half-smile. She pointed to the car where their baby was sleeping. “I came back to protest a week after giving birth. And I will continue to bring her every day. We’re exercising our rights. She and I both are.”

Photo credit: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

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