Last fall a group of environmentalists temporarily blocked the construction of a superhighway through protected wilderness in Khimki forest, near Moscow. In December Alexey Navalny, the anticorruption crusader dubbed Russia’s Julian Assange, launched RosPil, a website where people can anonymously report suspicious government deals—the site, which posts corporate documents exposing these corrupt deals, claims to have prevented more than $10 million worth of attempted misappropriations. In recent months activists from around Russia have rallied bikers against police indifference to motorcycle accidents, ordinary motorists against government officials’ flouting of road rules and preservationists against the razing of historical buildings by property developers.
Although state-controlled TV has kept the public largely in the dark about it, a new wave of civic activism is emerging in Russia. The country’s civil society, often considered a largely irrelevant, politicized and NGO-centric movement, is repositioning itself as a more participatory, nonideological and conspicuously patriotic one. As the state grows increasingly alienated from its people, civic leaders are carving out a small but growing space for online and grassroots protest.
The movement celebrated a coming-out of sorts on June 17, when Navalny joined Khimki protest mastermind Yevgenia Chirikova and hundreds of community organizers from all over Russia at Anti-Seliger, a gathering held in Khimki forest and conceived in retort to Seliger, the annual summer camp organized for the pro-Putin youth group Nashi.
“Our country is being colonized by Western business,” says Chirikova, condemning the lucrative involvement of a French company in the disputed highway project. “Our president is taking decisions to the benefit of foreign business and the oligarchs close to it, not the people. Our authorities have turned a great power into a raw materials depository for the West.”
Such populist rhetoric seems odd coming from a middle-class small businesswoman and one of the new leaders of Russia’s opposition. The sector has been dominated by pro-Western, pro-business, center-right figures like chess champion-cum-dissident Garry Kasparov and anti-Putin politicians like Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov. But as the popularity of the civil society movement grows, comments like this are becoming more common among opponents of the so-called Medvedev-Putin “Tandem.”
“The regime has no ideology, and neither does the opposition,” says Nabi Abdullaev of the English-language daily Moscow Times. “Civil society groups each have very local aims, but they are prevented from achieving them by the existing government machine, which they therefore struggle against.” In fact, says writer and online activist Oleg Kozyrev, there is no movement as such to join formally: “People are unwilling to join organizations but are ready to solve particular problems.”
Most Russians consider the Medvedev-Putin political class to be the most corrupt in history. According to a May/June survey by the Levada Center, 52 percent believe corruption among the country’s leadership is higher now than it was even in the notorious 1990s (in 2007, only 16 percent of respondents felt this way). Yet to many, opposition leaders like Nemtsov remain irredeemably tarnished by links to the Yeltsin regime and the 1990s, and by their perceived elitism, tone-deafness and self-interest. (Nemtsov’s former party, the Union of Right Forces, dissolved after capturing less than 1 percent of the vote in 2007. Although PARNAS, a new party he co-founded, was recently denied registration under questionable circumstances, it would not likely have fared much better.)