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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Protests Are More Than About Sheep

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It is likely that nobody would have taken note of the crash of an Mi-171 helicopter in the Altai region on Jan. 9 if the president's representative to the State Duma, Alexander Kosopkin, had not been among the dead. The passengers who survived the accident were members of the local and federal political elite.

The passengers had been illegally hunting endangered wild sheep, but that did not come to light through a press leak. Such information does not reach the public's attention, so photographs of the guilty hunters shooting the sheep could only have been divulged by well-connected people who want to settle some scores. The "hunting" crisis that resulted is just the latest symptom of the growing conflict in the upper echelons of government.

Altai authorities are doing everything in their power to hush up the affair, but that is only aggravating the situation. The obvious unwillingness of the authorities to bring criminal charges against the offenders has made people angry in Altai and in the capital as well. Authorities have started putting pressure on protesters, transforming the problem from an animal-protection scandal into a political one.

Opponents of the illegal hunters have been accused of everything from trying to foment an Orange Revolution to advocating that the region break away from Russia and unite with neighboring Mongolia, the country to which ecologists say the remnants of the endangered sheep herd escaped.

Now the discussion has shifted from saving endangered species to universal accountability before the law. If the wrongdoers are not punished, it will be one more proof that in Russia there exists a privileged class of people who stand above the law and the Constitution.

Protesters staged demonstrations in Altai and Moscow, and they will continue. Among the demonstrators were people who would never think of joining a Communist Party rally or a Dissenters' March, and that is precisely what is so worrisome to the authorities. Dissatisfaction is spreading not only among those who are traditionally antagonistic toward the authorities but among those who had been loyal supporters of the government.

For their part, the authorities' actions are inspiring usually passive people to join the protests, even while dissatisfaction continues to grow. The country's rulers have still failed to recognize that not only the economic situation has changed but also the public's mindset. The people's psychology evolves quickly under crisis conditions. By being unable to reach compromises and by ignoring public opinion, government officials create new enemies by their own actions. They provoke people into protesting, thereby giving them unexpected lessons in political struggle. Protests are breaking out among people worried about the environment, among automobile owners, Internet users and automobile factory workers. It almost seems as if the authorities are testing the public's resilience, trying to find out exactly what it will and will not accept.

Of course, the case of the illegal sheep hunters will not cause a major transformation of the political landscape, but it has managed to destabilize one of Russia's most politically docile regions. Knowing the way the political elite conducts itself, it is not hard to imagine that pockets of protest will erupt in other regions as well.

Leaders will be able to control the situation as long as those demonstrations remain isolated incidents. But sooner or later, the tide will turn, and they will escalate into something larger and more widespread.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.