Will Putin's Crackdown Backfire?

The harsh response to protests in Moscow is fueling interest in the movement.

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Moscow is experiencing its largest wave of anti-government unrest in nearly a decade. Three weekends ago, demonstrators took to the streets after the electoral authority barred several independent candidates from running for city council. When demonstrators marched again the next weekend, riot police arrested more than 1,300. Now, after hundreds more peaceful demonstrators were arrested Saturday, the crackdown appears to be fueling widespread interest in the protest movement -- and thus potentially backfiring for the Kremlin.

First, a Predata signal capturing attention to Russian-language web pages related to major anti-government protest themes -- such as corruption and political repression -- has continued to rise three weeks into the demonstrations. That is a sign that online audiences are engaging with the protests to a far greater degree than their size and local scope would ordinarily suggest. Typically, this signal trails off in the days following a significant Russian protest, even when subsequent protests follow, such as during the pension reform protests in 2018 and the anti-corruption protests in 2017.

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Online interest in past Russian protest movements has also risen and remained elevated following the crackdown. The initial protest did not trigger a spike in attention. It was only after the riot police beat and arrested demonstrators that Russian internet users began showing heightened levels of interest in the anti-government protest movement. 

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As further evidence, attention to the OMON, Russia’s riot police, has surged. This trend corroborates international press reporting that the harsh police response was driving additional protesters into the streets.

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In this sense, President Vladimir Putin may miscalculating by ordering such a harsh crackdown. Putin’s approval rating is at its lowest level since 2013 before the annexation of Crimea. Rising interest in the Moscow protests and the drivers of discontent with the Putin regime could point to potential escalation of the unrest into a national movement.