The Anatomy of Protest

The “March of Dissent” has certainly come and gone. The demonstration was modest and certainly ineffective on a political level. And while I don’t think the event should be overblown, I do think the March does raise some interesting questions about the Russian state, how it deals with opposition, and perhaps how it understands its power. In this sense, the “March of Dissent” continues to haunt.

From news reports, it appears that a smorgasbord of Russian security forces were on display for the “March of Dissent”—OMON, MVD, militsia, plain clothes police. Estimates put the citywide deployment at 8500, with 1000 of them at the march. The march itself was with little disturbance. Leaders from the Other Russia coalition simply made speeches denouncing Putin. Few demanded or attempted to break the ban on marching. “We decided to spare your heads,” Eduard Limonov explained the lack of challenging the ban to the crowd. This, however, didn’t satisfy the rank and file Natsbol minions. 200 of them followed by Red Youth Vanguard activists broke the police line and began marching up Brestskaya Ulitsa. Few at the rally followed, symbolizing how unwilling supporters of Other Russia were willing to risk their bodies. OMON officers quickly swarmed the marchers and arrested 40.

Why were so many police deployed for such a small demonstration? And what does it say about the Kremlin?

In an opinion in today’s Moscow Times, Lynn Berry addresses the same question: Why such a display of force?

The OMON officers, wearing camouflage fatigues and black helmets with clear face masks, were joined by units of younger Interior Ministry troops, police and their colleagues in plain clothes, including, apparently, the men sitting next to us. A total of 8,500 troops were deployed for a rally that drew 2,500 people at most, their numbers inflated by journalists, although hundreds more activists might have come if they had not been stopped along their way.

The show of force was impressive. Trucks with water cannon sat on Tverskaya, and a police helicopter thundered over the square, which was encircled by metal barriers and concentric rings of troops.

The question is why.

Perhaps the authorities feared a clash between the demonstrators — led by opposition heavyweights Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Irina Khakamada, Eduard Limonov and Vladimir Ryzhkov — and activists loyal to the Kremlin. Although such a clash was not inconceivable, it could have been prevented with a far more subtle deployment of police. And on Saturday the only “activists” interested in provoking a clash appeared to be working for the police anyway.

An act of intimidation seems more likely. Many more ordinary people might have come to the rally if they had not had to walk through police lines and metal detectors, or if they had not feared getting caught between metal barriers and surging lines of police if a clash had broken out.

But the main intention appeared to be to create a sense of danger and to suggest the demonstrators were a threat to Russia by casting them as extremists and in the pay of Russia’s enemies in the West.

But in the end, Berry concludes, “this overt demonstration of strength comes off as a projection of weakness.”

One may suggest, as Berry does, that intimidation explains it all. Painting Other Russia as “fascists” and lapdogs fed with Western money is an effective way to discredit their cause, whatever their cause may actually be. The explanation then is easy. The Kremlin is simply authoritarian and the show of force was merely to scare the opposition or others who might join it. Perhaps. This view explains what we already imagine about Putin and his rule.

I think this explanation is too simple. The divide between force and consent is a slippery slope. Effective states seek to build their hegemony on a balance of force and consent. Force maintains the parameters of what is acceptable and unacceptable politics, while consent justifies and reproduces those parameters. A show of too much force, however, can undermine the stability of a state’s hegemony to the point where force can actually be a sign of weakness rather than strength. Moreover, too much force can give legitimacy to a movement that appears fringe and ineffective. It also produces an air of crisis, which the Kremlin certainly wants to exploit, but in the end might not be able to effectively manage. In the end, one must wonder: If the Kremlin was so sure of its power, that is its hegemony, why didn’t it deploy a much more modest force or simply ignored the rally altogether? If anything, this is one big question that results from a rather minor event.