What’s the big issue here?
The protests began after city election officials barred independent candidates from appearing on the ballot for the Moscow City Duma elections, slated to take place on Sept. 8. According to the Moscow City Election Commission, the number of invalid voter signatures — those with discrepancies in handwriting or personal information — exceeded the allotted threshold.
Candidates met with authorities earlier in the month and staged authorized rallies to protest the commission’s ruling. When Moscow authorities failed to register the candidates, leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny called for his supporters to take to the streets in an unauthorized protest, a decision that has since resulted in his arrest.
There’s been substantial media attention surrounding the protests, but not much reporting about how Russians outside Moscow view the street actions. To understand how people view the protests, I commissioned two focus groups a few weeks ago in Yaroslavl, a provincial city about 160 miles from Moscow.
The focus groups — a total of 16 working-class individuals from different age groups — took place three days after the first large-scale unauthorized protest July 27. While these focus groups were limited to one location and are not representative of the population as a whole, they provide interesting clues on what Russians are thinking outside the center of unrest.
Those outside Moscow actually know very little about the protests
A majority of young workers and many older participants in the focus groups had not heard of the protests. Among those that expressed some knowledge of the rallies, many had heard a mention only in passing and did not know any details about what was really happening.
Independent media outlets in Russia have been at the forefront of protest coverage. But Russia’s state-sponsored media has given little coverage of the protests. State-owned television first addressed the protests a full day after the July 27 rallies.
Many leading government officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have yet to comment on the protests. State media coverage to date has focused largely on the unsanctioned nature of the protest and injuries sustained by police; news reports call into question the legitimacy of the protests and protesters.
For a country where nearly 75 percent of individuals get their news from television, this lack of coverage suggests that Russians outside the capital are not receiving comprehensive information of the ongoing unrest. However, word does appear to be spreading: During the Aug. 10 protests, solidarity rallies attracted protesters in cities across the country, including St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Krasnodar, Yekaterinburg and Rostov-on-Don.
There’s support for protesters, but not the authorities
Police detained more than 250 protesters before and during the Aug. 10 rallies. The police response was milder than during the previous two weeks of protests, when 1,400 and 1,000 people were detained, often violently.
This crackdown is one of the largest in years. Police have detained key figures, including prominent opposition politician Lyubov Sobol. Authorities charged some protesters with fomenting civil unrest. If convicted, they could face up to 15 years in prison.
Focus group participants who were aware of the protest were largely sympathetic toward the protesters. They noted that people are dissatisfied with Russian authorities and take to the streets because of lack of freedom of speech in Russia. One participant stated: “People want to be able to vote for their candidate, but their candidate is being removed [from the ballot]. So people start to go out [on the streets].”
Participants condemned police violence against protesters and argued that the authorities should allow the protests to occur. As one participant asked, “Why do [the police] beat … women and children … with sticks and clubs? They grab [the protesters], carry them away, and strong-arm them.”
Authorities’ attempts to frame the protests as illegal and violent do not appear to be resonating with Russians. For the moment, public sentiment seems to be firmly behind the protesters.
Some analysts speculate that these protests may be a turning point for Russia. Putin’s popularity has been in decline, and overall discontent appears to be on the rise. The findings of these two focus groups suggest that the authorities’ reaction to the protests have found little support among Russians, who are largely sympathetic to the protesters.
However, sympathy does not equal action. Focus group participants, though supportive of the protest goals, were largely unaware of what was happening in Moscow — and they saw little possibility for similar opposition activity in their community.
For many Russians outside the capital, as one participant noted, “Moscow is another country.” This suggests that opposition leaders may find it difficult to sustain the momentum unless they continue to broaden their reach beyond Moscow.