Whom do Russian protesters blame (and why it matters)?

Katerina Tertytchnaya and Tomila Lankina, 20 September 2016

In recent years, economic hardship in Russia has led to an increase in industrial and socioeconomic protest activity across regions. Protests over wage arrears, strikes and hunger strikes were particularly prominent in the first 8 months of the current year. And although the Russian Communist Party (KPRF) is particularly active in coordinating protest events across Russia’s regions, many protest events are spontaneous and grass-roots based. Overall, beyond labor protests, Russians appear very concerned about housing issues and the increase in prices for services such as transport. In this post we analyze variation in protest activity over time and across types of protests to study whom protesters pursuing various causes blame. We do so by studying where protest events take place (for example, whether they take place in front of the local town hall or regional parliament), the slogans and expressions protesters use, the images and text on their placards and posters, as well as journalistic descriptions of the events. Protest data for this analysis are harvested from namarsh.ru. Focusing on blame attribution during protest events in order to understand public opinion has several advantages over employing more abstract concepts like economic voting patterns. (On the question and analysis of Russian protests in recent years, see a report by CEPR). The protest categories we employ here further allow us to study patterns of blame attribution depending on the causes advanced in each of the events.

The evidence provided below suggests that although regional socio-economic unrest is on the rise across Russia, protesters do not generally attribute blame to the national government or regime. Protest events remain local, mainly targeting factory managers or regional authorities. In several cases that we recorded, protesters addressed their grievances to federal authorities in order to find a solution to specific problems; yet, that does not necessarily mean that protesters regard the regime itself as part of the problem. Farmers from Krasnodar, for example, declared in March 2016 that they would march to Moscow to communicate their demands to the President himself. A group of children protesting in support of the Dubki park in Moscow also made headlines for addressing their demands to “Uncle Volodya.”

In conclusion, evidence suggests that albeit on the rise, socioeconomic unrest may not straightforwardly lead to significantly reduced levels of presidential approval. The attribution of blame to regional and local authorities may be indicative of the success of the federal authorities’ strategy of deflecting blame for economic deterioration and the resulting socio-economic hardships experienced by Russia’s citizens. It is important to study patterns of regional unrest in the months to come in order to conclude whether over time, socio-economic protests will be indeed politicized.

Figure 1: Monthly Protest Event Count (July 2012-August 2016)

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Notes: Columns present the monthly frequency of all protest events that take place across Russia

Figure 2: Political and Socioeconomic protests (July 2012-August 2016)

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Notes: Columns present the monthly frequency of political and socio-economic protest events that take place across Russia. Political protest events are coloured in light grey and socio-economic ones in black. The socio-economic category also describes various types of labor protests.

Figure 3: Variation in Targets of Blame (January–August 2016)

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Notes: Columns present the proportion of protest events targeting: (i) employers/ factory managers; (ii) local and regional authorities; and (iii) federal authorities (the President, PM, government ministers). Protests are disaggregated by categories. The ‘other’ protest category captures legal and environmental protest events.

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