In the recent days and weeks, protests have erupted across Russia and Belarus due to mounting concerns of corruption, declining living standards, and taxes on the unemployed.
In Russia, the opposition leader and anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny was sentenced to 15 days in jail for organizing and supporting the protests that spread from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok over the weekend. In Russia, over 80 cities across 10 time zones protested a real estate scandal that featured the corruption and exorbitant lifestyle of Prime Minister Medvedev.
In Belarus, thousands of people are protesting the “law against social parasites.” The so-called “parasites” law, forces Belarusians that work less than 183 days per year to pay $250 to offset their ‘drain’ on the economy. Even though the law has since been terminated, a great number of people in Belarus have stayed in the streets to protest their declining living standards and pay.
Several important things are occurring in these two countries. First, people are protesting corruption; they are not protesting for regime change (like in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt or Yanukovych’s Ukraine) nor are they protesting for western style of democracy (right now). People are simply seeking economic and social retribution for the corruption that has plagued their countries for years.
Second, Russians and Belarusians are disobeying direct orders from the local authorities to stay home. Not since the collapse of the Soviet Union has such a large amount of people directly disobeyed a direct order from the government to refrain from protesting. Even the now infamous snow revolution of 2011/2012 was negotiated to some extent with authorities. Furthermore, what is especially troubling for Moscow is the fact that many of these protestors are teenagers and young adults. They are a generation of people who may be more careless than that of older generations, which makes them potentially more dangerous. If this younger generation shapes their identity as the ‘opposition,’ the Kremlin may find it harder to suppress their energy and demonstrations going forward.
Third, President Lukashenko is finally following Putin’s narrative that the protests in his country are a type of subversion designed by western security agencies. Lukashenko has claimed that he is falling victim to the so-called ‘fifth columnists.’ a term used by the Kremlin to shift blame to an outside party, and nullify the legitimate complaints by protestors during the snow revolution.
Today, a ‘social contract’ exists in Russia and Belarus. The ‘contract’ says, that in exchange for economic well-being and security, for better or worse, the people of Russia and Belarus will allow these autocratic regimes to remain in place. But the contract is being violated, economic well-being and living standards are declining and people are finally starting to take notice of the corruption within their governments.
At one time, rising energy prices in Russia spurred growth throughout the country as well as its very dependent neighbor, Belarus. The rising standards of living and security provided by the autocratic leaders left many citizens indifferent and therefore more willing to overlook their concerns of the increasingly despotic tendencies of their autocratic leaders.
However, today, a growing number of people are beginning to see their ‘social contract’ with their state as null and void due to the collapse of their economies. The drop in the price of oil, along with the sanctions targeting Russian officials after the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has forced a capital flight away from Russia; and, subsequently it has greatly damaged the economies of Russia and Belarus. The people of both of these countries have been left with declining living standards, reduced pay, corrupt leadership, and an authoritarian state that has clamped down on their civil liberties.
Despite these troubling times in Russia and Belarus, there is some good news for Putin and Lukashenko. The protests are due in large part to concerns of corruption. This is a good thing for Putin and Lukashenko because corruption is a tangible problem that can be addressed and rooted out, even if, inconsequential people or low ranking underlings in Moscow or Minsk are the ones to be fired. Protestors seek economic change. They are seeking changes within the preexisting architecture of their government and society, and not, as Putin would fear, the change of the actual architecture and framework of their autocratic regimes.