World·Analysis

Why a community protest over a church should worry Russia's Kremlin

Authorities in Russia's Yekaterinburg have called a truce with protestors over building a new church in a popular park - but that's unlikely to quell a broader discontent by people who believe they are being ignored by their leaders.

Unrest in Russian city points to deeper discontent with authoritarian government

Protestors pull down a police fence in October Square park in Yekaterinburg. (E1.ru)

When residents of the Russian city of Yekaterinburg got wind of a plan by a pair of billionaire oligarchs to rip up a downtown park and build a giant golden-top cathedral in its place, opposition was perhaps predictable.

After all, the October Square park offers pretty views of the Iset River and is a rare bit of relaxing green space in the busy centre of Russia's fourth largest city, 1,400 kilometres east of Moscow.

But the intensity of the protests this week, in a country where mass political rallies are all but banned, appeared to catch municipal administrators off guard.

Riot Police hold their positions against protestors in Yekaterinburg. (E1.ru)

Night after night, several thousand people ripped down fences designed to keep them away from the park and confronted rows of heavily armed riot police.  

More than 70 people were arrested before the local mayor — at Vladimir Putin's urging — stepped in and offered a truce, of sorts, by promising more consultation.

New activism

Russia watchers say it speaks to a new type of grassroots political activism that should worry the Kremlin.

"The events in Yekaterinburg have once again shown that a new civil society is emerging in Russia and that it's not afraid to defend its rights," wrote Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Institute in the Moscow Times.

If local authorities continue to use force to suppress it, he continued, "the degree of social ... and political tension ... will only increase."

A drone shot of the thousands of protestors at Yekaterinburg's October Square park. (E1.ru)

Ham-fisted attempts by the developers of the church project, which also includes a massive commercial complex nearby, to thwart the demonstrators have only added to the local outrage. 

The firms hired teams of private security personnel, including members of a local mixed martial arts club owned by one of the oligarchs, to rough up the protestors.

All of it helped fuel the sense that Yekaterinburg's civic leaders and their ultra-rich patrons are tone deaf to the wishes of the community they are supposed to represent.

Growing discontent 

The confrontations in Yekaterinburg come on the heels of similarly violent encounters between police and protestors over a smelly garbage dump just outside of Moscow that was sickening scores of school children.

Law enforcement officers gather during a protest against the new land swap deal, agreed by the heads of the Russian regions of Ingushetia and Chechnya, in Ingushetia's capital Magas, Russia, on Oct. 8, 2018. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

When a proposal was announced to divert the waste to a new dumpsite thousands of kilometres away in the Arctic, near Arkhangelsk, it sparked more fury there.

In Russia's Caucasus region of Ingushetia, a plan to alter its geographic border with neighbouring Chechnya triggered a similar uproar.

And in communities across Russia, seniors have staged angry demonstrations over new legislation that will make them wait longer to collect meagre pensions.

In a post on his Facebook page, political scientist Valery Solovei suggested all these events share a common theme — that Russians feel cut off from unaccountable leaders.

"The occupation of a public garden, loved by citizens, is just an excuse and pretext for the manifestation of accumulated discontent," he wrote.

A protester shouts during a rally against planned increases to the nationwide pension age in Moscow on Sept. 9, 2018. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Feeling ignored

Simply put, he said, people are feeling ignored.

"People see that this is the only thing left for them. Go to the square. Protest. Demolish fences."

The Kremlin has slowly, but measurably, been tightening its grip on political freedoms in the country. Many mayors and governors are now appointed by the Kremlin and don't ever have to stand for election.

The former mayor of Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman, was a rare example of an elected official aligned with Russia's most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny.

When his term expired last year, the Kremlin refused to hold elections and instead appointed his replacement.

Policemen, affected by tear gas, attempt to detain a protester during a rally against pension reforms, which envisage raising the retirement age of Russian citizens, in St. Petersburg on Sept. 16, 2018. (Anton Vaganov/Reuters)

The Kremlin has also put practically all of the nation's major TV networks under state control and just last month passed a series of bills aimed at restricting criticism of the government on the internet.

Prominent Russian sociologist Ekaterina Shulman says, while protests such as the ones in Yekaterinburg pose no immediate threat to the stability of the regime in Moscow, she said they are indicative of a broader discontent.  

She says people feel they should be better off than they are, on many fronts.

Demanding accountability

"It's a problem for the regime because these protests are not just isolated episodes," Shulman said in a Moscow Times podcast this week.

"They are the product of the general dissatisfaction that we have seen in every poll that we have taken since the middle of 2017."

Russian orthodox priest Father Maxim Minyailo speaks to protestors at the park in Yekaterinburg. (Reuters)

One of the challenges for the government is that, unlike most political movements with identifiable leaders and structures that can be targeted by police, these grassroots revolts are effectively leaderless.

"There are no public bodies. No political parties involved. No mediation of any sort. I don't even seen any NGOs (non-governmental organizations), I just see mass protest which can turn violent," said Shulman.

In his comments Thursday, before he offered up the solution of a city-wide poll on whether people want the church, Vladimir Putin appeared to infer that much of the anger was not genuine, suggesting "activists from Moscow who come to make a fuss" may be behind it.

Andrei Kolesnikov, from Carnegie, notes the opposition isn't aimed specifically at Putin. Rather, he sees it as a push toward demanding accountability from the system.

"The authorities will try to buy civil society in order to suppress it," he wrote, "But there are parts of civil society that cannot be bought or sold."

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.