Yesterday, I wrote about how the unrest in Pugachev, where anti-Chechen riots broke out following the murder of a local paratrooper, was the result of the weak migration regime that has allowed ethnic resentments to grow unhindered. Ethnic tension, however, are only part of the puzzle. The bigger picture comprises the ineffective way in which the state addresses the public concerns, and the erosion of public faith in the efficacy of the state.
While the riots were apparently an expression of anger toward the Chechen community in Pugachev, they were undergirded by a deep dissatisfaction and lack of faith in law enforcement. While the initial protest was a response to a murder, the second gathering of several hundred was in large part a response to a rumor that the police had let the suspect go free. That rumor may have been made more believable due to the penetration of ethnic organized crime. The Prosecutor’s Office in Pugachev has reportedly found eight recent cases brought against Chechens that were dismissed prematurely, which suggests bribery. It also suggests that the local police are either complicit in crime, or cannot stop it; neither scenario is likely to please the public. In either case, the general sentiment that the police could not be responsible for justice caused the protests to balloon and led to a highway blockade.
It is significant that protestors chose highway blockades and may have attempted a rail blockade. Blockades, like labor strikes, hunger strikes, and occupations, are a form of direct action against the state; in forming a blockade, one is literally putting one’s body in the way of the functioning of the state. This type of action is thus a play for attention from a local, regional or federal power, where people feel they cannot access institutions to articulate their concerns. In Pugachev, it was an effective one, as state representatives (along with dozens of law enforcement officers) arrived to avoid the interruption of road and rail travel. It’s also worth noting that this kind of action has no obvious impact on the Chechen community, which might be a sign that the ethnic issue is not at the heart of the unrest.
As local authorities struggled to subdue protests, a representative of the General Prosecutor’s Office was dispatched to Pugachev to meet with discontent residents on July 14. Prosecutor General Yury Khokhlov, who is head of department for Supervision over the implementation of laws on federal security, international relations, combat extremism and terrorism, met with seven locals over 40 minutes. They lodged complaints about inaction of the local prosecutor’s office, corruption, unjust verdicts, the raiding and seizure of enterprises, abuses by traffic police, poor quality of housing stock, abuse of labor rights, and environmental degradation. None of the residents brought up inter-ethnic relations.
Not only are these problems mostly unrelated to ethnic conflict, they are widespread concerns that resonate beyond Pugachev. Rampant corruption and concern for housing and utilities (a state-administered sector in Russia) topped a recent VTsIOM poll on the biggest problems in Russia today. On both a local and federal level, the state has failed to adequately address these issues. For example, both Medvedev and Putin have fumblingly addressed the notorious corruption of the police force, including the scurrilous traffic police, to no effect. Where the state is ineffectual at providing promised services and preventing criminality, and provides no recourse for feedback, people seek alternative ways to express and address their problems. As Mikhail Delyagin, director of Moscow’s Institute of Globalization Studies notes, “people are beginning to look for alternative forms of governance, where the old stop working. If the mayor defended the interests of citizens who seem to have chosen him, these gatherings would not have happened.”
It remains to be seen whether it is even possible for local and regional authorities to address their constituents’ concerns before they reach a boiling point. A recent study by Center for Strategic Studies suggests that protest sentiment is building in the regions. In polling data, people outside Moscow and St. Petersburg are exhibiting more positive feelings toward democracy, and more negative feelings toward authoritarianism and Putin. 63% of respondents in regional cities with over 1 million people said they would protest if hit with an economic crisis; only 15% of Muscovites said the same.
If this continues, it would be a reversal of the trend of the last decade, during which protest activity shifted to the capital, as increased centralization has made Moscow the audience of all claims. While protest in Moscow is higher-profile, it is easier to contain and control using the full resources of the capital. If protest becomes widespread in the regions, however, authorities at all levels might be scrambling to deal with a diversity of claims across huge geographical reach, with direct actions that might be hard to break up without violence, and with a legitimacy crisis that comes from failing to address the basic concerns and demands of the people.