Abolishing Activity

Girl detained at Moscow's Strategy 31 rally on January 31, 2011. Source: ReutersFrom the editorial team at Gazeta.ru:

Abolishing Activity
July 23, 2012

The Russian authorities are trying to make all forms of organized civil activity illegal. And they’re creating a surprise for themselves: when the first serious crisis hits, they’re going to find themselves up against entirely different forces – ones that come as if out of nowhere, unwilling to limit themselves to the bounds of the law, and indisposed to dialogue with the higher authorities.

Under pressure from the state, the opposition has now gone heavily on the defensive. The loud and confident calls heard not so long ago to renew civil society, to restructure the political order, and to find mutually acceptable forms of transition from the old system to the new one have since fallen silent.

By spewing out ultra-reactionary measures, the government has cut off political initiatives and forced its critics to focus on their own protection.

Protection, that is, from the upcoming show trials on the alleged mass riots on Bolotnaya Square and the inquisitional case against Pussy Riot; from the hysterical smear campaigns stylizing them as “enemies of the people;” from attempts to subject the internet to censorship and to label criticism of the authorities as “libel” and punish it as a criminal offense.

This reactionary wave has gathered momentum and become swamped with volunteers and seditionists alike – the outcasts of today’s government who hope that this troubled torrent will carry them into central positions. One Duma deputy proposed requalifying not only NGOs as “foreign agents,” but the media as well. Another one wants to introduce a criminal statute against “compromising morality,” so that nobody wants to arrange politically-tinted performances. Even the Public Chamber prepared a piece of legislation aimed at preventing the work of independent volunteers, the increase of whom has brought about the jealousy of the authorities.

If you combine all that’s already been done with what’s only just been planned, it comprises one insane project – the abolition of civil society in Russia. In reality, it’s impossible to do something like this right now, but it’s exactly what they’re dreaming about as an ideal.

The new law on rallies transforms marches that criticize the leadership either into something illegal and severely punishable or into an event completely under the control of that same leadership. The frightened NGOs are fighting over the state subsidies they’ve been promised and will become typical bureaucratic agencies. The internet will be stripped of everything that isn’t approved from on high. Critics will bite their lounges out of fear of “libeling” anybody. The “municipal filter” will exclude anyone from running for office except for those approved by the authorities ahead of time. A new, fatal law will be conjured for any sector of civil activity that still remains alive.

That’s exactly the trajectory. And even though it’s going to be only partially successful in the worst case scenario and won’t to drive people back into their kitchens, it’s easy to imagine some temporary freezes.

But here, two questions arise: who is going to suffer and what kind of social consequences are these reactionary freezes going to have, at least in the intermediate term.

The situation with the victims is clear. They are almost literally the same “angry townsfolk” who spent several months taunting the Kremlin with their protests. By some coincidence, the overwhelming majority of Russian civil activists belong to this crowd, including non-political ones – from city and environmental advocates to volunteers.

This petty but extremely punctual revenge on the part of the Kremlin is addressed, of course, first of all to those who “offended” it. But of course it works out so that the strike hits all types of civil activity and the entire civil collective.

This collective is almost entirely concentrated in large cities and most of all in Moscow. Its relatively small number of adherents gives the authorities the illusion that it is indeed possible to push it aside and forget about it.

In thinking that it should eliminate the tiresome and irritating opposition, the Kremlin is actually breaking with the part of society that is the most moderate, rational, law-abiding, and amenable to dialogue.

If the dream of the authorities comes true and the current civil collective is seriously compromised within the public realm, that realm is not going to remain empty. The newly-available space will be quickly taken up by different forces altogether, ones that appear instantaneously and spontaneously, who ignore any bans or government regulations, and who are not at all inclined to make compromises.

The public passivity of today’s ordinary Russian citizens is a fleeting and deceptive phenomenon, entirely unlike the trusting optimism of better times. Official surveys indicate that people have a very restrained or directly skeptical attitude towards the higher leadership. Any reckless social innovation could make this silence erupt into flashes of discontent, which will easily find spokesmen, and the fewer responsible ones there are, the more strongly disorganized and compromised the growing social stratus of political oppositionist activists will become.

The Russian people are waiting for the new old president to fulfill his campaign promises – a quick rise in the quality of life, or at least not its decline, which is what we actually face. Behind the nervousness with which the government shuffles and reshuffles its plans is a vague understanding that not one of these plans is going to work when considering the expectations of the masses.

The number of options left for the government is shrinking literally every month, and its current aggression against the country’s civil collective is worse than just the aggregate of reactionary and unlawful actions. It is a grave political mistake.