Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny leads a march on Moscow’s Tverskaya street, March 26th, 2017. He and nearly 1000 Russians were later arrested and charged with participating in unlawful demonstrations. Photo by Evgeny Feldman
The recent scenes from Moscow were quite incredible. Five police officers in riot gear carrying away a young woman who had resigned herself to arrest. Scenes like these are especially striking when considering the context of Russia’s increasingly draconian protest laws that (ironically and cynically) prohibit anti-government rallies without government permission. In 2011, the symbol of dissent was a white ribbon. In 2017, it is a rubber duck and sneakers. Regardless which banner Russians march under, they have hit the streets at great risk of violence, arrest, and draconian political measures from the authorities, all in the name of shedding light on Russia’s perennial and most salient problem: corruption.
The existence of corruption has never really been a debate in Russia. The debate lies with whether or not the population should care about it or accept it as a symptom of its grand bargain with Vladimir Putin – who, in exchange for stability and relevancy, has created a new elite of Russian superrich. An example of this dynamic was the way in which Russia hosted the Sochi Winter Olympics. Construction for the games was vastly overcharged, and construction contracts in the lead up to the games were only handed out to Putin associates. Russians remained silent. Furthermore, they did not take to the streets when the graft of Russia-friendly oligarchs, such as the former president Victor Yanukovych, was laid bare in the aftermath of the Euromaidan protests.
Russian oligarchs have raided state pension funds to cover losses from Western sanctions. They have perpetuated an economic reality that has caused Russia’s household income to remain depressed for the majority of citizens while most other industrialized nations have risen. Russians know that Putin has a solid grip on power, and corrupt or not, is too large a target for the political opposition. This is why anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny has focused on the periphery of Putin’s inner circle, highlighting items like $600k watches, and houses for ducks which has become one of the new de facto symbols of the small, but dedicated political opposition to Putin in Russia.
The critical component that makes this time different than previous protests is the attempt at breaking the affluent bubbles of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Protests popped up in over 80 Russian cities over the last two weeks. Hundreds have been arrested and some are doing a few days’ jail time. Even the Russia-friendly Tillerson State Department quietly issued a half-hearted condemnation of the crackdown. It is difficult to sustain such a movement for long in Russia, but there is no doubt that this is the largest show of popular dissent in Russia since the 2011 Bolotnaya protests, which caused Putin to take a much stronger approach to domestic power consolidation. Liberal anti-government demonstrators even were arrested in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Considering this is one of the most socially conservative and politically repressed cities in Russia, these were no ordinary protests.
It is difficult to put one’s finger on exactly why this specific episode of anti-corruption work put people on the streets in Russia for two consecutive weekends when past efforts have not. One reason may lie with the inherent “goober” image that Dimitri Medvedev holds with the public. During his short stint as President, he was seen as cut from a different jib than Vladimir Putin. He was a tech geek. He was the first Russian President to tweet. He wore purple suits, ate cheeseburgers, and apparently is a coinsure of early heavy metal. To the world and to moderate Russians, Medvedev did not seem like the one to conduct a gas war, invade a neighbor, or siphon off a spare billion for himself. When listening to the plethora of newly created Obama-nostalgic podcasts by former government officials like “Pod Save the World” even the most Putin-Skeptic of the mainstream national security apparatus speak nostalgically of the reset days and how Medvedev was seen as a different character and “one to work with.” In reality, this was an overly optimistic analysis by an industry starved for a diplomatic alternative in Russia.
This was a similar symptom found in Kremlinologists’ analyses of late Soviet leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev. While some viewed he and his cohort as reformers, they were still inherently bent on keeping the Union together, and the Communist party in domineering political control. The fact of the matter is that we cannot expect Medvedev to act much differently than Putin and other Siloviki because his power exists at Putin’s graces.
Russia’s power elite would be well served to hang up drone nets around their duck mansions, lest this movement return during next year’s presidential election. Presently, the activists on Russian streets have enjoyed light (by Russian standards) treatment by the police. Alexei Navalny was wise to hit Putin at his periphery. His videos do not detail Putin’s personal wealth, although this could be saved for closer to the presidential election. But what his work could have done is to show a possible political alternative for Russia. One in which Putin is still trusted within the country, but in which the population that offers him astronomically high approval ratings calls for him to surround himself with better people. In the end, it seems as if this movement will not survive into a third week. However, those who hit the streets may have learned something important: If there is organization among Russian liberals around things they care about, but things that are expendable to the president, there just might be room for a political alternative under Putin. We are still a far cry from an open political and legal structure in Russia, but for those wishing to see a more open Russia, small victories seem large in context.
Author’s Note: I finished this piece on the morning the St. Petersburg Metro was bombed. Clearly, Russia is a less stable country than imagined by both those who look up to Putin and those who vilify him. This does not mean his grip on power is any less secure, but his popular mandate could easily slip from inflated popularity to only a simple majority. Downward trends in the popularity of Russian politicians can end their reigns very quickly.
Charles Johnson is the Editor-in-Chief of Ramen IR. His writings primarily focus on Eurasia and the NATO alliance. He graduated with an MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, and a BA in History and International Relations from Boise State University. He also served as an Education and Youth Development Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia with the US Peace Corps. Charles has worked in economic affairs with the US State Department and on NATO Policy with the US Department of Defense. His Twitter is @