Russia’s Protests May Have Staying Power

A man waving a Russian flag walks across Red Square a week after protests against state corruption. Moscow, Russia, April 2, 2017. (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

Russia’s parliament has blocked investigations into the corruption allegations against Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev that inspired protests across the country on March 26 this year. The demonstrations were organized by Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader who is running against Vladimir Putin in the 2018 presidential election. Navalny was arrested while on his way to the protest in downtown Moscow and was released today after serving a 15-day sentence for disobeying the orders of a police officer.

A video produced by Navalny and the Anti-Corruption Fund had detailed Medvedev’s vast wealth—including various luxury homes, a yacht, and vineyard—and the shell companies and close friends and associates who helped him acquire it. It has now been viewed over 17 million times. Estimates vary from 32,000 to 90,000 people marching in 82 cities across Russia in response to the accusations, making these the biggest mass mobilizations since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in March 2012. The question now is what lasting effect the demonstrations will have on Russia’s political climate.

Protests in Russia are not unheard of, but they remain fairly rare. In the 1990s, strikes and protests in the country’s regions were common, but this changed during the course of Putin’s first two presidencies, as he consolidated and centralized political power. A factor in this was regional governors, who had previously been important actors in mass mobilizations, being brought into the vertical power system. Some significant, if sporadic, episodes of mobilization nevertheless still took place.

The biggest change came in December of 2011, when tens of thousands came out to protest electoral fraud during parliamentary elections. Protesters had been galvanized by images and video of fraud widely shared on social media. For the first time, the demonstrators targeted Putin himself, chanting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin.” The government responded with a mixture of political reform, shifting blame, and repression. Laws on registration of political parties were liberalized, while officials accused the West and, famously, then United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of instigating the protests. By May of 2012, police began to violently disperse gatherings and the frequency and size of protests subsequently decreased.

While the size of the recent anti-corruption protests reminded observers of those 2011-2012 events, the recent mass mobilizations were unique in several ways.

First, teenagers were among the most active participants. March 26 marked 17 years since Putin was elected president for the first time and it seems that “Putin’s generation”—young people who were born and raised while Putin was either president or prime minister—is comfortable with mobilizing and of challenging the state.

Even before the recent protests, news stories of young people resisting the established political system were emerging. A week before the protests, an audio recording was widely circulated of a conversation between a teacher and students at a school outside of Bryansk; the teacher lectures the students about being brainwashed by opposition propaganda while the students raise specific and sophisticated concerns about the political system.

The recorded conversation was sparked by the arrest of a classmate for encouraging people to attend the anti-corruption rally. It clearly demonstrates that teenagers are consuming different media from their teacher. This is important. Television in Russia is heavily controlled by the state and independent journalism mainly survives online. Many older people, who receive most of their news from television, are presented with a one-sided pro-government narrative in which opposition leaders like Navalny are thieves, protesters are paid instigators, and Russia is unfairly persecuted internationally by the US and its allies. Teenagers appear to be deeply suspicious of television news and see things differently from the older generation.

The second way in which the protests on March 26 were unique is that they concerned an important everyday issue for many Russians: official corruption. Russia ranks 131 out of 176 for states assessed by Transparency International on corruption perceptions. During the last decade, the government has been able to avoid a wide public backlash by redistributing profits from oil rents and rallying people around a shared desire to regain Russia’s superpower status. The size and breadth of the March 26 protests, however, shows that this strategy may not hold in the long term. International economic sanctions related to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine and falling oil prices have caused pain for ordinary Russians. And some of the slogans featured during the protests—“We do not want Syria, we want roads in Irkutsk!”—reflected that.

Moreover, while the electoral fraud-related protests of 2011–2012 petered out once Putin came back to the presidency and further political change seemed unlikely, anti-corruption protests may have more staying power. “Pocketbook protests,” which appeal to people’s shared experience of deprivation caused by government action, tend to be resilient. By implicating Putin’s inner circle, these protests differ from other socioeconomic demonstrations in Russia, which often appeal to Putin as a “good tsar” and a problem-solver who is unaware of any wrongdoing. As several observers have indicated, corruption is a chief concern for Russians and an issue on which Putin is politically vulnerable.

Of course, the impact and longevity of the protests depends in part on the government’s reaction. State-run media firmly ignored the demonstrations as they were happening. But this censorship, instead of diverting attention from the opposition and its message, pushed news consumers toward other media sources. A public opinion survey done by Russia’s Levada Center after the protest showed that a majority of Russians were sympathetic to protesters and saw the gatherings as genuine expressions of discontent, though 24% of respondents also said that participants had been paid. In the past, the Kremlin has handled anti-government mobilization by staging its own protests. This time around, however, this may not be necessary. The terrorist attack on the St. Petersburg metro prompted politicians to call for a “moratorium” on protests in the name of public safety. Navalny is likely to continue to agitate against corruption but, because he is vulnerable to further arrest and trial, his political future is uncertain.

Yana Gorokhovskaia is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Russian Politics at Columbia University.