'We Are the State' Grassroots Movement Gains Momentum in Russia

By and

Part 2: Small Victories


The struggle between the new and the old Russia is also a generational battle. Kaz's main adversary in Shchukino, Sergei Yeremeyev, head of the district administration, is 59. He worked in a secret arms factory during the Soviet era, and today he is part of Putin's feared "vertical power structure," the system that guarantees the Kremlin influence, even at the local level. It has little to do with democracy and much to do with feudalism. Yeremeyev, for example, was appointed by prefects, who in turn were appointed by the mayor of Moscow. The mayor, in turn, is appointed by the president. None of them is elected, and yet they hold considerable power. The same holds true throughout the country.

Shchukino's budget is the equivalent of €200 million ($257 million). "But the elected representatives of the people can dispose of only 2 percent of the budget," says Kaz.

He is currently spending a lot of time attending meetings on kindergarten budgets and building renovations. He is also scrutinizing the activities of administration chief Yeremeyev. Is it corruption when he only obtains the approval of the district council for construction projects after the work has already begun?

Kaz has learned to write petitions and read laws. "We have to understand the system so we can change it," he says. In Shchukino, he pushed for the purchase of park benches so that retirees could sit down and rest. He has the district council meetings videotaped and posts the videos on the Internet.

But Kaz achieved his greatest success last year, when city officials turned sidewalks along Tverskaya Street into parking spaces. He found 50 volunteers who spent a day keeping track of how many drivers benefited from the parking spaces and, conversely, how many pedestrians had to squeeze past the parked cars. The results were so clear that the city quickly imposed a stopping restriction along the street.

It is small victories like these that he talks about in the McDonald's restaurant on Pushkin Square as he picks French fries from a tray. It's a new and different way to make life difficult for the Kremlin. In the long run, it could be more of a threat to Putin than any Coordinating Council.

'Change from Below'

Kaz plans to run for a seat in the Moscow city parliament next year. "We have to establish a counterweight to the old people and the conservatives," he says, "a reformist camp that brings new leaders to the top."

A new grassroots movement consisting largely of young urbanites is currently taking shape, says sociologist Natalya Subarevich. "Putin will not be able to stop change from below," explains political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin, saying that while Putin's methods hail from the Soviet era, "the society is now post-Soviet."

Thousands of kilometers south of Moscow, a 25-year-old has just demonstrated how to undermine the dominant position of his party United Russia. Irina Oleinikova spearheaded a local protest movement and entered into an alliance with the Communist Party. Then, in the municipal election in the small city of Kuleshovka, she beat the United Russia candidate. Oleinikova is only half her rival's age, but she captured twice as many votes, and today she is Russia's youngest mayor.

Kuleshovka, a city of 14,000, is in the grasslands of the Don River delta. The ruins of a combine for child nutrition, the largest in the country during the Soviet era, stand on the town's outskirts. Some aspects of the Soviet Union have survived in the city administration. The unfriendly receptionist is a holdover from the 1980s, when the aging Leonid Brezhnev still ruled the country, and gaudy sports trophies are still on display in the office.

The new mayor requested the personnel files of all her employees and asked for a list of all real estate owned by the city. Her predecessor had as many incriminating files as possible destroyed. Now Oleinikova wants to gain an overview of what's left. She has two main objectives for the first few weeks after taking office. First, she wants to speed up internal communication by having a modern telephone system installed. Second, she plans to retrieve the right to dispose of real estate owned by the city from the county executive. "Big changes start with small things," she says. "We are the state."

Oleinikova's path to the highest office in the city began last April, when more than 200 angry citizens stopped a crew of workers who were cutting down trees on the edge of a popular oak forest in the center of the town. Oleinikova was also fond of the area, which brought back memories of picnics with her parents and the games she used to play there when she was in school.

When the police arrived to arrest the ringleaders, Oleinikova, a lawyer and sociologist, forced them to document that 29 healthy trees had been cut down. From then on, she was the leader of the protest movement. As it turned out, the mayor had only given permission to clear allegedly sick trees, but a developer had plans to build at the site. It was obviously a backroom deal.

"People are starting to fight for their rights," says Oleinikova. And what is taking place in Kuleshovka is now happening all over the country.

'Dramatic Changes'

In the neighboring city of Bataysk, residents recently went to court because of election fraud. In Usinsk in northern Russia, an environmental initiative group is fighting against pollution in the Pechora River caused by an oil company. And in St. Petersburg, a young lawyer advises and represents female workers, on a pro-bono basis, who were let go because they were pregnant. Tens of thousands of large and small non-governmental organizations are currently active in Russia, despite new, repressive laws.

Is all of this a sign of change from below, a paradigm shift in 1,000 years of Russian history, in which subjects were always waiting for a strong czar? And times when Russian rulers clung to power until revolts flushed them away? It's still too early answer these questions definitively, but it is clear that something is indeed changing.

The Center for Strategic Research in Moscow has been studying the coordinates of Russian society for years. It was the only institute to predict last winter's mass protests.

"We are witnessing a growing divide between the people and the government," says Mikhail Dmitriev, the center's president. The Kremlin, he adds, is deluding itself when it celebrates shrinking numbers of participants in demonstrations and the declining popularity ratings of opposition leaders like Navalny and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov as a victory.

Dmitriev, an economist, believes that Russian sensitivities are reflected in statistics. He knows the rows of figures that attest to the successes of Putin's early reforms by heart. He is also familiar with the figures showing that Russia has managed to eliminate extreme poverty, which is defined as having to make do with less than €2 a day. He can also name the indicators of a growing middle class, including the fact that there are now 180 registered mobile phones for every 100 Russian citizens. According to another statistic, Russians now spend more on cat food than the Americans.

"All of this points to dramatic changes," says Dmitriev. "Now that the refrigerators are full and trips abroad are affordable, citizens want legal certainty and more political say." And perhaps they also want change from below.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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