Russia’s Investigative Committee this week dropped rioting charges against five people who had taken part in protests over opposition candidates being barred from running in upcoming elections to the Moscow city parliament. It also asked for two more suspects to be released from pretrial detention centers and put under house arrest instead. On the same day, courts started handing down prison sentences to people convicted of using violence against law enforcement officers during the protests. It seems that the crisis that started to form in mid-August in the authorities’ repressive reaction to the protests is taking shape. Mass prosecutions like those seen following protests on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2012 are quickly falling apart, but as before, the authorities are not prepared to forgive the use of violence against the security services.

In late July and early August, it seemed that the Kremlin had chosen the toughest approach possible to putting down the Moscow protests, and that it could all end in mass prosecutions and arrests on an even bigger scale than those that followed the Bolotnaya Square protests. As seemingly every institution of authority tripped over themselves to join the fight against the protests, several key aspects of the campaign emerged. 

The first was that it was a battle against foreign influence, that the protests were provoked by Western agents: a theme that echoed in both chambers of the Russian parliament and in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is a particular form of pro-Putin populism: if you want to forge a career for yourself in today’s Russia, push an agenda featuring ideas close to the president’s heart. The search for foreign interference is also good for propaganda purposes.

The second aspect is the crackdown on the opposition. As well as seeing their candidates blocked from the upcoming Moscow city parliament election, the opposition is often refused permission to hold rallies. Its leaders are regularly arrested, threatened with prison sentences, and subject to home searches, being followed, and wiretapped. 

Yet the authorities have so far stopped short of giving opposition leaders lengthy prison sentences, which has become one of the most divisive issues among the president’s inner circle. The siloviki are clearly annoyed by what they see as their civilian counterparts’ excessively soft attitude. There is a rumor that President Vladimir Putin is personally opposed to putting opposition leader Alexei Navalny away for a long time, because he fears it will turn the activist into a hero. Yet allowing him and his allies to run in the elections is not something the authorities are prepared to do.

The third and final aspect is the mass prosecution of rank and file protesters. Nearly all of those charged with rioting and using violence against the authorities are ordinary people whom the siloviki chose at random to bear collective responsibility for the Moscow protest movement.

The police, FSB, Investigative Committee, and other security agencies all have an interest, to differing extents and for different reasons, in bringing the president clear proof of anti-state activity. But it was precisely this aspect that saw a sudden step back from the middle of August that was compounded on September 3 by the unexpected release of people charged with rioting.

There are several factors stopping the Russian authorities from embarking on mass repression. The main one is that the threat is made up, and therefore there is not enough evidence of it. The entire Kremlin is currently busy fighting not the opposition, but attempted foreign interference in its domestic affairs.

Many people are insisting that there was no rioting, but that’s not the main issue for the authorities. They are concerned not with facts, but with motives and hypothetical intentions. The Kremlin decided that the Moscow protests were an attempt to stage a Russian Maidan—the revolution that led to regime change in Ukraine in 2014—and therefore neither Putin nor the law enforcement agencies require any proof.

Unlike the Bolotnaya Square protest, which did culminate in clashes between protesters and the police, this time around, the protest was peaceful. To continue prosecuting people for rioting, the authorities would have had to openly fabricate proof of that rioting. That’s not an insurmountable obstacle, of course, but it’s not society that the siloviki are trying to convince: it’s the president, which reduces the opportunity for misrepresentation. Exaggeration is OK, but not outright fabrication. The Putin regime may be authoritarian, but it’s not prepared for mass political repression at an institutional level: it doesn’t have full control over the information space, there is no iron curtain, and there is no need for mass imprisonment.

The rioting case essentially collapsed because of a lack of evidence, but that was clearly not enough on its own to make the siloviki back down. Another factor was the lack of unity within the elite: the hawkish interpretation by senior security service officials of what was happening in Moscow seriously alarmed an influential part of the president’s inner circle. 

The civilian section of the presidential administration, including chief of staff Anton Vaino and first deputy chief of staff Sergei Kiriyenko, may have preferred to keep quiet when they found themselves sidelined from decisionmaking regarding the protests, but Sergei Chemezov, a former KGB officer and long-term Putin associate who now heads the Rostec state corporation, did not. He said openly that not allowing the opposition to take part in the Moscow parliament elections was dangerous to the state. This was an open challenge to the hawks, an unambiguous call for an alternative interpretation of the Moscow protests as a domestic problem, and a warning to the authorities.

There’s no doubt that Chemezov’s statement is only the tip of the iceberg. Most members of the elite—businesspeople oriented on foreign markets, the in-system liberals, and the financial authorities—are unhappy with this uprising by the security services. It’s only a question of time before the president is forced to see that there is objective unhappiness in Russia with the authorities, and a crisis in the existing model of political governance.

After two months of trial and error, it looks like the authorities have started to define their red lines. As before, the slightest physical resistance to the authorities is met with harsh punishment, but the siloviki have stopped short of openly fabricating cases: not for the sake of society, but because this concerns the president too. The level of repression is abating, together with the displeasure of the civilian section of the elite close to presidential business, which had been alarmed by the siloviki’s attempts to alter the status quo.

In the near future, circumstances—growing social discontent, increased activity by the opposition, the crisis in political governance, and the Kremlin’s losses in the elections—will force the regime to decide which section of the elite is more important: does it want to survive thanks to the merchants, or seek refuge under the shield of the warriors? Combining the two will become harder and harder. It’s possible that it will not be Putin who has to choose between them, but someone capable of demonstrating real results: something the siloviki have not yet been able to do.

  • Tatiana Stanovaya