(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Saturday, the Russian opposition held the biggest rally Moscow has seen since 2012: According to White Counter, a group that makes it its business to count participants at such events, between 50,000 and 60,000 people turned out. That, however, is still a far cry from gaining the support of the silent majority in a city of more than 12 million, the way protesters appear to have done in Hong Kong. The Kremlin’s version of events for that silent majority is that the protests are instigated from abroad.
The current wave began last month, when anti-regime candidates were illegally excluded from a Moscow City Council election scheduled for Sept. 8. Since few people care about the largely powerless city legislature, the initial rallies attracted only a few thousand people when they weren’t permitted by the authorities; an officially sanctioned rally on July 20 drew 22,500 people. The official permission makes a difference: It’s safe to attend a sanctioned event. By contrast, the Kremlin and the city authorities chose to suppress unauthorized protests with brute force, using thousands of riot police in full gear, and on July 27, a post-Soviet record was set with more than 1,300 people detained in Moscow.
The violence, most of it directed at very young people – some too young to vote – failed to arouse the same kind of anger as in Kiev in 2013, where the cruel beating of a group of students set in motion events that led to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s fall the following February. What it did, however, was shift the protests’ central issue from the election to the disproportionate use of force. Police are traditionally disliked and distrusted in Russia because of widespread cruelty and corruption, and photos and videos of people being beaten have led a number of celebrities, especially those already less than loyal to the Kremlin, to take a moral stand.
The Aug. 10 event was officially permitted, and a number of musicians and social network influencers called on their fans and followers to attend it. YouTube star Yury Dud, whose interview channel has more than 5.7 million subscribers, wrote an Instagram post explaining why he decided to take part in the rally: “Let’s think critically, let’s doubt, let’s ask questions and let’s not accept it as normal when innocent people are thrown in jail or brutally beaten by police.” Almost half a million people “liked” the post.
Rapper Miron Fyodorov, known as Oxxxymiron, was another celebrity who joined the rally for similar reasons (his post about it drew more than 270,000 likes); the total number of subscribers and followers behind the “influencers” who promoted the event exceeded 30 million.
Of course, even in a city like Moscow, where fads tend to spread like wildfire and a mortal fear exists of being unfashionable, social media likes and follower counts don’t convert readily into real-world political action. Given all the celebrity support and the guaranteed safety from police violence, 60,000 was a disappointing turnout (to be fair, it’s holiday season, and it rained). But 60,000 isn’t the limit, though, if the beatings continue. After the official rally ended, police mobilized to prevent a spontaneous continuation, and one officer was filmed hitting a woman in the stomach. This caused a new group of pop stars to demand an end to the violence; among them the rapper Egor Bulatkin (Egor Kreed), who on Saturday performed at a festival hastily organized by the Moscow authorities to distract Muscovites from the rally.
However, for the authorities to apologize for the beatings, much less end them, or to show any sign of yielding to the protesters would be an impossible sign of weakness. During the rally, President Vladimir Putin, clad in a leather jacket, was hanging out in occupied Crimea with his tame group of bikers, the Night Wolves.
Putin’s trademark manner of ignoring the reverse gear has forced his allies to look for ways to justify the violence. The official line that has emerged in the last couple of weeks is to cast the protests as fruit of a Western conspiracy. The foreign ministry last week called in the top U.S. and German diplomats in Moscow to remonstrate with them for alleged incitement of Russians to attend the protests (one example was a warning to U.S. citizens to steer clear of an unsanctioned march, which described its planned route).
Andrey Klimov, a member of the Russian parliament’s upper house who heads the legislature’s commission for the prevention of foreign interference, has accused Oxxxymiron, who is a dual Russian and U.K. citizen, of acting in Western interests. He has also accused YouTube of sending Russians unsolicited notifications calling on them to attend the Aug. 10 rally, an accusation the Russian web censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, has echoed despite a lack of evidence.
State TV channels, too, have been covering the protests as inspired by Russia’s foreign adversaries.
Few Muscovites will take this spin at face value. Young people certainly won’t: They’re more likely to trust their generation’s stars, the rappers, comedians and YouTubers, than middle-aged, sour-faced Putinists spewing “patriotic” rhetoric. But they’ll hear an unspoken part of the message – the threat that if they join the protests, they’ll be treated as traitors, a category of people Putin despises and will not spare.
The regime and the protesters are locked in a battle for the silent majority. The Kremlin and the Moscow authorities have fear and indifference on their side as riot police continue eagerly to follow their orders and some popular artists still agree to take part in lavish, free-attendance shows scheduled for the same time as the rallies and marches. The opposition has a clear moral advantage, which leads to a growing sense among influencers that they can’t stay neutral if they want to keep their young audience.
So far, the authorities have been winning the tug of war, but not decisively: After all, the protests have been growing rather than subsiding. More cruel beatings, and especially an accidental death, conceivably could lead to an out-of-control escalation. Putin is taking a risk by allowing the violence to continue.