Reese Erlich has won numerous journalism awards including a Peabody award. He’s also a freelance journalist who writes for CBS Radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp., NPR and VICE News, and his Foreign Correspondent column distributed nationally in the US.
Last year he published his latest book with the title The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy.
I mentioned the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong a few weeks back, particularly the fact that a huge proportion of the city’s population was taking part in them. Since I talked about them, the protests have been covered widely in the western media, and they haven’t dissipated, they are continuing every weekend.
It’s notable that in the meantime protests have started in Moscow on a similar theme. People, mostly young people, are taking to the streets complaining about the lack of democracy. There are some notable similarities, but also big differences.
The main similarity is that they started in much the same way, over a seemingly minor issue. In Hong Kong that was an extradition bill that would have allowed authorities to forcibly take anyone they arrested to China where the rule of law is much weaker, where the government can basically lock up anyone they want.
In Moscow, it was about banning opposition candidates from standing in elections for the Moscow local government. This is a relatively minor issue, if Putin lost control of the local government there, it would in theory barely cause a blip on his total control of the country, and that was never going to happen anyway because the chances of more than a few of those opposition candidates winning were remote.
But in reality, Putin runs a régime where no uncontrolled opposition can be tolerated. If they can win a few seats in this election, they can more the next time, then maybe a majority, and then challenge Putin in more serious ways. The way Putin runs Russia, all opposition must be controlled.
But it’s import to note a big difference between the scale of the protests. In Hong Kong, up to two million out of the seven million citizens have taken part in the protests. The biggest demonstration in Moscow had perhaps 50,000 people. That’s a lot, but only about two per cent of the size of the Hong Kong protests, in a city with vastly more people. Moscow has an official population of about 12 million, but in reality it’s far larger.
The protests started when many opposition candidates were rejected for spurious reasons. This was mostly that, the authorities claim, more than 10 per cent of the thousands of signatures required to get on the ballot, were flawed, usually for unspecified reasons. This despite that the number of undisputed signatures far exceeded the number required, and that many candidates had documentary proof that many disputed signatures were valid, and even video testimony from the signatories.
Other excuses to kick people off the ballot bordered on the ridiculous, such as because on the official form, candidates put a dash in a column to indicate that they didn’t own any foreign property, rather than writing out the words saying that they don’t own any.
The candidates excluded were exclusively associated with opposition figures, real opposition figures such as Alexey Navalny, although they have to run as independents because their parties are banned. The controlled opposition, mostly candidates associated with the rump communist party, widely believed to be a puppet of the Kremlin, had no trouble getting their candidates on the ballot.
The demonstrations started on July 20, this one was permitted by the authorities, but they might have been startled by the fact that more than 20,000 people attended. At that rally, Navalny called for further demonstrations if the candidates were not permitted to run. For saying that, he was sentenced to a month in prison, for calling for an unauthorized demonstration. The following Saturday, the 27th that demonstration went ahead in the teeth of police harassment and violence.
Hundreds of people were arrested just for attending, most were later released, but about a dozen people face serious charges, which they could typically get eight year sentences, for offences such as throwing a paper cup towards the police lines. Eight years in a Russian prison is no joke, apart from the horrendous conditions, it’s not uncommon for people to go into the prison system only to disappear and never be heard of again.
The rallies have continued every Saturday up to this past weekend, with typically 50,000 or more people attending. On July 28, Navalny was rushed from prison to hospital, apparently having been poisoned, and then sent back to prison by against the objections of his doctor.
But it’s important to remember that as well as being small, these protests in Moscow are supported by a particular slice of society. There is a group of well-educated Russians, mostly in Moscow and other large cities who yearn for democracy and western-style freedoms. You could call them a young middle class. They travel abroad on holidays, they speak English and other foreign languages, they get their news online from largely independent sources and they all know each other.
They are a small minority. There is the elite in Russia, numerically tiny, who like the current system because, well because they are the elite, and there are is a broad mass of people who live outside the main cities, along with the working-class majority in the big cities who at best have no interest in these protests, or the fixing of the elections that sparked them.
Elections get fixed, that’s what you do with elections. Friends of the strongman get rich. That’s what friends of the strongman get. They don’t see a connection between democracy and the rule of law and their own prosperity, because they have no basis for that comparison, and they don’t see democracy and the rule of law as the default method of government, because they have never experienced them.
As one member of the English-speaking foreign-travelling Moscow middle class told me, they want free elections but even if they got them, Putin would be certain to win, maybe just not by so much.
This is clearly not true in Hong Kong. The people there know democracy, they know the rule of law and they know prosperity. They also know that the Chinese People’s Army, which massacred thousands of protesters in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago is massing on the other side of the border, and that the Chinese might prefer not to do a repeat of that, but if it comes to it, they are willing to.
That’s a lot of brave people are putting their lives on the line for democracy.