Anti-corruption demonstrations sweep across Russia
The protests show opposition leader Alexei Navalny remains a force
VLADIMIR PUTIN won his first presidential election on March 26th 2000. Exactly 17 years later, tens of thousands of Russians across the country came out to protest the corruption that has come to define his tenure. The demonstrations, the most significant challenge to Mr Putin’s regime since 2012, began on Russia’s Pacific coast, where hundreds marched through Vladivostok. Throughout the day reports of rallies, most of them unsanctioned, flowed in from dozens of cities, including metropolises like Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg, industrial centres like Chelyabinsk and Nizhny Tagil, and even Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, a North Caucasian region where Mr Putin regularly receives more than 90% of the vote. The largest crowds emerged in Moscow and in St Petersburg, where they spilled onto Palace Square—an echo of the 1917 Russian revolution that is unlikely to be lost on the Kremlin.
The Sunday marches came in response to a call from Aleksei Navalny, an opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner. Mr Navalny recently released a film alleging that Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, has used charities and shell companies to amass a collection of mansions, yachts and other luxuries. The video has been watched nearly 12m times on the internet, and Mr Navalny implored his followers to take to the streets demanding answers.
Demonstrators reprised slogans from the 2011-12 Bolotnaya protests, chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Russia will be free!” The authorities met them with riot police and vans. Human-rights groups say more than 700 people were arrested in Moscow alone, including Mr Navalny. On March 27th a court sentenced Mr Navalny to 15 days in jail for organising an unauthorised demonstration.
Mr Navalny’s selection of Mr Medvedev as a target was a strategic calculation. Mr Putin remains popular, and even Russians who dislike him would hesitate to protest against him directly. Mr Medvedev is widely disliked and seen as weak. Many Russians hold him responsible for the weak economy. Over the past three years, as the oil-price collapse and Western sanctions tipped Russia’s economy from stagnation into recession, consumers have been hit hard. Though GDP growth has turned a corner and is projected to return to positive territory again this year, retail sales continue to fall and inequality is growing. Nonetheless, the protests were not restricted to Mr Medvedev; they were a statement of general dissatisfaction with the system. As Angelina, a pensioner in Moscow, put it, “I’m fed up with this mess.”
The scale and the geographical scope of the demonstrations surprised many observers. Analysts and sociologists have long insisted that widespread unrest is unlikely: 83% of Russians say they would not participate in political protests, though only about 50% believe that the country is heading in the right direction, according to the Levada Centre, an independent pollster. But polls may be a poor indicator of the nation’s mood, especially in Russia’s regions, where the downturn has been felt especially acutely. For many who attended Sunday’s marches, exasperation seemed to have overcome apathy and fear. “Even if I’m arrested for 15 days, it’ll be a joy—I’ll go on a diet,” quipped Lena, a young journalist who marched along Tverskaya Street, steps from Red Square.
The crowds reflected a generational shift. Whereas the Bolotnaya protests in 2011-12 had a middle-aged core, Sunday’s rallies were filled with people in their teens and twenties—most of whom have no memory of their country without Mr Putin at the helm. “The point of democracy is that different rulers are needed at different times,” said a computer-engineering student who was attending his first protest. “They’ve been in power for 17 years already, it’s time to change the leader.”
As the marches rippled across the country, Russian officialdom was largely silent. State-run television acted as if nothing of note was happening. As thousands marched down Tverskaya Street, just steps from the Kremlin, the Rossiya 24 news network focused on Ukraine’s decision to ban Russia’s entry to the Eurovision song contest, a volcanic eruption in Kamchatka, and a shooting at a nightclub in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Kremlin issued no statements. Moscow city authorities said little except to commend the police for their “impeccable” work.
The mass arrests seem designed in part to deter protests during the 2018 presidential elections. Officials still reckon that lingering patriotic enthusiasm over the annexation of Crimea in 2014 will carry Mr Putin to a fourth term. The Kremlin has reportedly set goals of at least 70% turnout and a share of the vote of at least 70%, too. Russians now call the return of Crimea their second-greatest point of pride after the victory over Nazi Germany, and Mr Putin’s approval ratings remain well above 80%.
But the “Krym Nash” (“Crimea is ours”) effect may be fading. Anniversary celebrations of the annexation earlier this month were a damp squib. Economic issues and corruption worry Russians more than the unresolved war in Ukraine. Denis Volkov of the Levada Centre writes that for most Russians, Crimea’s return “has lost its relevance, and is spoken of less in focus groups”. Mr Navalny has declared his intention to run for president next year, despite being barred from the ballot because of a trumped-up conviction. The events of this weekend show that he remains a force.