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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Voronezh in May 1 Mood

After the unrest in Voronezh on April 11 the government met to discuss the impact of its housing reform policy. Potential problems with the program should have been discussed before it was implemented, of course. But during the last 10 years government officials have gotten it into their heads that they have the right to conduct whatever experiments they like on the Russian people without facing any consequences. Hence they test their reforms on human subjects.

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Voronezh proved the perfect test site, the very model of a regional administrative center run by local authorities staunchly loyal to the Kremlin. The former "pro-communist" regional administration was booted out after Vladimir Putin became president and replaced it with reliable "centrists." The regional economy is in fairly decent shape. Agriculture is developing nicely thanks to the area's rich soil, and industry has gotten a boost from increased demand on the domestic market. In short, a success story for the new Russia.

It turned out, however, that even in the new Russia pensioners and the poor can't afford to spend 80 percent of their income on utilities and other housing expenses. The government didn't bother to create a system of subsidies for the poor before launching the reforms. What's more, it was totally unclear how the government could offer such subsidies without negating the benefits of its own housing reforms. None of this came as much of a surprise, really. The only thing that the government couldn't foresee was the ability of its human guinea pigs to revolt.

Not that the revolt was all that terrifying. Regional Communist Party and trade union bosses gathered a crowd for another run-of-the-mill rally, and then, unexpectedly, lost control. People started demanding a meeting with the mayor, clearly planning to give the old boy a sound thrashing. The most ambitious among them tried to blockade the administration building and got into a scuffle with the police. But the crowd was made up primarily of elderly people, and presented no real threat.

It was the very possibility of a revolt in this "model town" that shook up the leadership in Voronezh and in Moscow as well. The most ominous result of the rally was the decision to boycott utility and housing payments. This decision found support not just among the protesters, but among the population at large.

And the rally shook up more than just the government. The unions and communists also came out on the losing end. The communists were already under the gun, and the events in Voronezh really put them between a rock and a hard place. Previously their rallies didn't worry anyone; in fact, they were seen as a good way for society to let off a bit of steam. But if the communists are going to start holding rallies that they can't control, the Kremlin has every reason to be alarmed. And the Communist Party's leaders live in fear of the Kremlin's wrath. However, the party can't stop calling people out onto the streets. May 1 is right around the corner with its ritual parades.

Television news further stoked the flames by showing footage of the strikes and demonstrations in Italy. The Italians are protesting a new labor code and the collapse of its social welfare system --both of which Russians swallowed with scarcely a whimper. There is one mitigating circumstance, however: Russians have no intention of actually following these new laws or shelling out any money. They will continue to live their own lives, which neither the government nor the private sector can do much to change. And the people always have one ace up their sleeve. They can always go out into the streets and deck the first uniformed person they see.

The symbolic importance of the unrest in Voronezh was out of all proportion with what really happened in the streets. But the government's reaction will only add fuel to the fire. Everyone understands perfectly that when the authorities immediately start to justify their actions and to mumble vaguely about compensation, it means that they are unsure of themselves, and that means they can surely be pushed even further. And if they cave in again, the people will throw it all back in their faces -- from the Gaidar reforms and the shelling of parliament in 1993 to Bloody Sunday in 1905 and serfdom.

This year's May Day holiday should be interesting to watch. But the most interesting spectacle will follow, when it becomes clear once again that a crowd scuffling with the police can achieve far more in this country than the whole parliamentary opposition taken together.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.