Why Moscow's anti-Maidan protesters are putting on an elaborate pretence
As tens of thousands of people gathered in central Moscow for an “anti-Maidan” rally recently, the Russian public was being asked to swallow an unsavoury pill: apparently the country is in such danger that its own security forces are not enough to prevent a coup d’etat. Instead it must rely on a to help fight off the west.
The rally, centred around opposition to the that toppled former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was organised by a apparently set up to prevent “colour revolutions” in Russia. But this raises the question of what a rag-tag crew of cultural figures could possibly do that the FSB, the foreign intelligence agency and numerous other security agencies couldn’t? Isn’t it the job of these bodies to preserve stability? Why bother having counterintelligence agents if you rely on minor celebrities to do your job for you?
Russia already has the framework in place to prevent a popular uprising, even one from within. This became clear in the , who was not only sidelined from the opposition movement thanks to a flurry of criminal cases launched against him, but also discredited in the eyes of many activists. The , last December also acted as a powerful deterrent for other activists.
But thinking critically about these issues is missing the point. This Anti-Maidan movement, spearheaded by Senator Dmitry Sablin, Night Wolves biker gang leader Alexander “the Surgeon” Zaldostanov, and mixed martial arts fighter Yulia Berezikova, could clearly never prevent any uprisings in .
That simply is not within Anti-Maidan’s competencies. But it can put on a flashy show to draw as many people as possible into its ranks in a bid to make fear of the outside world a mainstream preoccupation. It does not seek to prevent uprisings; it seeks to malign members of the opposition, create the impression that Russia is under siege from the west, and present as the only solution — all in one fell swoop.
Saturday’s rally was the first manifestation of all three. Posters vilifying and opposition activists such as Navalny and Boris Nemtsov were in abundance, while pamphlets saying “Putin Won’t Allow Maidan in Russia” were handed out near metro stations.
Reports abounded of students being paid to attend and state workers being forced to participate — making it clear the organisers knew they had to provide an elaborate, sold-out show.
Many demonstrators were convinced that Russia’s government was at direct risk of being overthrown.
“We, the people, must fight for our country’s independence from America. That is why I came,” said Svetlana, who declined to give her surname. She said she also planned to attend an upcoming referendum for Russia’s “independence”.
When asked who was in control if Russia was not currently independent, she said: “The US. Who else wrote our constitution when [Boris] Yeltsin was drunk? American ‘aides’. The same people working in now.”
Svetlana was not alone. Many other demonstrators said they believed that the US had not only been responsible for the bloodshed in Kiev a year ago but had also meticulously infiltrated Russia using members of the political opposition.
While conspiracy theories are nothing new, Anti-Maidan’s purpose is to make them the norm.
It’s no surprise that Moscow authorities sanctioned the rally — held in the very centre of the city — just as it’s no surprise that the protest was crawling with state television reporters.
Nor is it a surprise that for perhaps the first time in recent history Moscow police overestimated the turnout, putting attendance at 35,000. Many journalists put it in the range of 20,000 to 25,000.
If there are enough people congregated in one place shouting “fire!” one might actually start to feel the flames.
And what better time than now, when Russia is stuck in the bowels of an economic crisis, to create a bogeyman for the people to stand united against? What better time than now, when ordinary Russians are starting to feel the ?
These are precisely the sort of conditions that make a country ripe for popular protests — so what better way to nip them in the bud than by convincing the people that voicing discontent with the government would be playing right into the enemy’s hands?
Another rally was held over the weekend to mark the one-year anniversary of the uprising in Kiev. But that protest, held in Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv on Sunday and attended by about 500 people, was not a show intended to manipulate public consciousness. It was not staged to direct the public’s rage at an abstract bogeyman.
That rally was tainted by very real bogeymen, as the relatives of during the march can confirm. Two policemen died at the scene, and a 15-year-old teenager passed away later in hospital after the peaceful protest was interrupted by an explosion that Ukraine suspects was a terrorist attack. At least another 15 were wounded in the blast.