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AEI Expert Calls Russian Unrest A Civil Rights Movement

Russia -- A protester taps a fake "blue light", a blue bucket turned upside-down, to a roof of his car in St. Petersburg, 22Apr2010
Russia -- A protester taps a fake "blue light", a blue bucket turned upside-down, to a roof of his car in St. Petersburg, 22Apr2010
A new study of Russian society by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) draws parallels between ongoing protests in Russia and the U.S. civil rights movement. Leon Aron, Director of Russian Studies at AEI, presented his report, “A Quest for Democratic Citizenship: Civil Society in Putin’s Russia,” at AEI on May 31 along with a panel discussion from Leonard Benardo from the Open Society Foundation, Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Andrew Weiss of the RAND Center for Russia and Eurasia.

“[The Russian government] says you are not equal in Russia. You are not equal in courts. You are not equal on the roads, and you’re also disenfranchised,” Aron reports. “You are not disenfranchised because of the color of your skin, but you’re disenfranchised because you vote the wrong way, and, therefore, we don’t count your vote,” he adds.

Sparked by the demonstrations that spread throughout Russia in 2010, Aron and Daniel Vajdic, a research assistant at AEI, visited Russia last summer to interview leaders of six grass-roots organizations -- including those from the Federation of Automobile Owners of Russia, environmental groups, and anti-corruption efforts -- and found a society seeking self-awareness, integrity, and equality. The challenge, Aron argues, is that none of these result from governmental change alone, but rather will develop alongside an enlightened and motivated civil society that demands democratic citizenship.

Aron’s interviews reveal the backbone of the movement: a young, globalized, and educated middleclass. Although their demands are almost entirely apolitical, these grass-roots organizations recognize that they must cultivate a well-informed democratic citizenry to remain relevant in the political arena and ensure their rights. Russia does not need, or particularly want, a regime change, Aron argues. The effort engulfing Russia is not a politically-minded movement; rather, it’s a civil rights movement.

The leading activists, many of whom are former business owners, are pitted against the Kremlin when their causes run into political roadblocks, Aron observed. While they do interact with the state, they lack a solidified political agenda. In a sense, their demands transcend politics, as did those of the civil rights movement in the U.S.

“Politics come and go, but if you are for equality and against corruption, then you stay and you continue to demand and to demonstrate,” Aron concludes.

-- Kate Leisner