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Russian opposition protests

Andrej Kalich / ng
September 20, 2014

For the first time in six months, opposition activists in Russia have called on people to join peace marches against Moscow's Ukraine policies and its propaganda machine. But there is little appetite for protest.

Friedensdemonstration in Moskau 15. März 2014
Image: DW/K.Kaminski

Peace marches are set to take place in Moscow and other Russian cities on September 21. As many as 50,000 people are expected in the capital alone, for what will be the first mass protest involving the public against Russia's intervention in Ukraine for six months.

In March 2014, in the wake of the disputed referendum in Crimea on whether the peninsula should become part of Russia, tens of thousands took to the streets across the country under the slogan "Hands off Ukraine."

Recent polls, though, suggest that the majority of Russians still supports Moscow's Ukraine policies. Dissenting voices are very rarely heard in public.

Passivity and propaganda

According to the Russian polling institute Levada Center, more than 80 percent of Russians do not take part in mass protests, even if they are held in their neighborhood.

Human rights campaigners and the opposition say that is down to the state's "successful fight" against any form of protest, helped by aggressive propaganda by the Kremlin.

Russland Moskau Flashmob Weisser Ring
Nemtsov: activists are labeled traitorsImage: DW

"The people are being tricked with agitation and propaganda," Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov told DW. "A militaristic hysteria is being forced on the country," he added, which is exacerbated by what he calls a "fascistization" of public opinion.

"Political activists and anyone with a dissenting opinion are being persecuted in the most disgusting ways, lies are being told about them," he said. "They are being blamed for all the country's deadly sins, and they are being labeled traitors."

Weak civil society

Sergey Smirnov, of the website "Human rights in Russia," says Russia's civil society is weak and underdeveloped, which is why there are very few protests.

"Even in the 21st century, we still have no effective means of influencing our individual fortunes as well as that of society as a whole and our country," he told DW. "Where are our civil institutions that raise the alarm if there is even a hint of our human rights being violated, let alone when there are people dying?"

Smirnov says NGOs have been put under pressure by authorities for months. "They are being branded 'fifth column' or 'foreign agents'. Even the Organization of Soldiers' Mothers was denounced," Smirnov says, visibly agitated. He believes the message is that it is useless and dangerous to utter an opinion in public.

Russland Demonstration gegen Zensur 13.4.2014
Protests against censorship in AprilImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Comparing Russia to Afghanistan

Russian opposition politician Vladimir Ryshkov thinks the fact that there are so few protests is because most people do not see a necessity to seek objective information. "For the past year, Russians have been exposed to massive propaganda via their TV sets and they tend to follow that," he told DW.

So, what would have to happen for the Russian public's view on Moscow's military involvement in Ukraine to change? Ryshkov has an historic example. "I remember the war in Afghanistan, which lasted 10 years, very well. At first, it didn't cause much concern among the people of the Soviet Union. People didn't lose faith in their leaders until soldiers did not come home alive and thousands of Soviet families were affected."

Economic consequences

Another factor that may sway people is economics, Ryshkov thinks. "What price Russia will have to pay for its anti-Ukraine policies we won't know until economic factors such as the decline of the ruble, unemployment, price rises, and food shortages become worse," he says.

Nemtsov is convinced that the situation won't change until people get access to objective information. "There is no civil war in eastern Ukraine, Russia is fighting Ukraine. We have to show the Russians evidence - and there is plenty - that Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine," he told DW.

"If the public gets access to objective information, the anti-war movement will gain traction," Nemtsov believes.

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