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reflections

May 9, 2017 | 21:44 GMT

Dissent Shakes the Foundation of the Kremlin's Power

(VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Governing the vast Russian territory is no small feat. To ensure their rule over the country's roughly 17.1 million-square kilometer (6.6 million-square mile) expanse, Russia's leaders have traditionally relied on the country's institutions — the church, schools, regional governments and the security forces — to reinforce the Kremlin line. President Vladimir Putin consolidated the those establishments when he first came to power to buttress his administration's control. But the recent spate of protests across Russia has started to chip away at its tried-and-true social pillars, raising questions over how much longer the government can maintain its tight grip on power.

Most of the dissidence in Russia today does not come in response to a specific incident — such as the electoral fraud that incited mass demonstrations in 2011-12 — but to the country's political system more generally. With a few exceptions, rather than targeting the president himself, the current protests are aimed at corruption or economic stagnation. Because the demonstrations are tied to deeper, more enduring concerns among the Russian public, they may well continue and expand. And since the specific grievances underlying the protests vary from city to city, the Kremlin will be hard-pressed to find a single response that can quell the unrest.

To make matters worse for Moscow, the country's regional leaders now seem to be registering their own dissatisfaction with the federal government. Local officials granted protest permits in 11 of the 32 cities in which demonstrations took place April 29, although the Kremlin deemed them illegal. The display of defiance suggests that Moscow is losing its sway among regional leaders, most of whom the Kremlin hand-picked from among its loyalists. The situation is similar to the one that confronted Putin in 1998 when regional and local leaders bucked Moscow's orders after a series of crises gripped the country. One of Putin's first moves as head of the security services — before his turns as prime minister and president — was to crack down on the renegades.

Over the past several months, criticism of the Kremlin among teachers and school administrators has also increased in volume. In September 2016, Russia's Education Ministry approved three history textbooks that largely elided the atrocities of Josef Stalin's reign and the alliance his government struck with Nazi Germany at the start of World War II, while hailing the Soviet Union's heroism in the war. Moscow has used revisionist history to try to inspire patriotism among young Russians. But in the lead-up to Victory Day, the national holiday commemorating the Nazi defeat at the hands of the Soviets on May 9, several teachers across the country wrote op-eds decrying the Kremlin's manipulation of past events. Even so, the Russian government still has allies among the country's educators; since protests began sweeping the country in March, half a dozen videos have surfaced showing teachers denouncing the demonstrations and their participants. (The students in the videos, meanwhile, question their teachers' stance on the protest movement, indicating that Russia is in the throes of a generational shift.)

More recently, doubts have arisen about the loyalty of Russia's police forces. On Monday, Valery Solovey, a prominent professor and political analyst at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said in an interview that the police officers ordered to crack down on protests would soon start resisting the Kremlin. Solovey, who has earned a reputation for his clear-eyed understanding of Russian society, was careful to note that the police would not necessarily side with the protesters but may be increasingly reluctant to punish them as Moscow demands.

The obedience of the police has long been a key measure of the Russian government's authority. Many members of the police and internal forces defected to pro-parliamentary factions during Russia's so-called constitutional crisis in 1993. The Russian military also stalled for two days before heeding then-President Boris Yeltsin's orders to storm the parliament building; in the wake of the uprising, Yeltsin renewed his demands for a security force under his direct control. The Kremlin found itself in a similar predicament in 1998, when the military and police threatened to join, or at least stop intervening in, mass protests over the country's financial crisis. At the time, public servants, including members of the police and military forces, had gone months without pay. The Kremlin ordered that back pay be distributed to the armed forces first, ensuring that it would have a loyal military at its disposal.

Even if Solovey's predictions about police defections come to pass, the Kremlin is prepared. Last year, Putin took a page from Yeltsin's book, siphoning some of the interior services' elite forces to create the National Guard, a unit he can mobilize for his personal protection in the event of widespread domestic revolt or a palace coup. In the meantime, though, the Kremlin will have to find a way to placate its public and maintain its hold on the institutions that have kept Putin in power for nearly two decades.

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