Symposium introduction: On Sunday, March 26, the unexpected happened in Russia. Across the country, coordinated anti-corruption protests drew tens of thousands of people. Ostensibly these were not directed not at President Vladimir Putin (although as you’ll see below, opinions differ). Rather, opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for the protests in a video released online accusing Prime Minister (and former president) Dmitry Medvedev of a spectacular, and corrupt, accumulation of wealth, and demanding an investigation. Protests struck dozens of cities, widely dispersed, led not just by pensioners but also young people.
To understand these surprising protests, I asked a series of experts on Russian politics from PONARS Eurasia to join an online symposium, answering:
Do the protests that took place in 99 cities across Russia last Sunday signify a meaningful change in Russian politics is likely? Why or why not?
For this post, the sixth in the symposium, we hear from Vladimir Gel’man, professor of political science at the European University at St. Petersburg/University of Helsinki.
The wave of protest rallies, which hit Russia’s cities on March 26 and brought an estimated 60,000 or more Russians to the streets, might be perceived by the Kremlin as a new challenge to its authoritarian rule.
The previous wave of post-election protests of 2011-2012 was curtailed through the “politics of fear,” a strategy that relied on low-intensity coercion, intimidation and public discrediting of the regime’s opponents. It proved successful. Afterward, the September 2016 parliamentary elections resulted in the unchallenged dominance of pro-Kremlin parties.
How were these protests different from previous protests?
Predictions of continued inertia and apathy in the face of the coming 2018 presidential elections may not turn out to be correct. The opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his team mobilized Russians against high-profile corruption and targeted the weakest link at the Kremlin, namely Prime Minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev. The video of corruption accusations produced by Navalny’s team was viewed by more than 11 million Russians and triggered a new round of mobilization, which is different from the previous one in several respects.
First, the anti-corruption issue unites various and diverse segments of Russians, serving as an effective glue for a would-be anti-regime “negative coalition.”
Second, despite the fact that meetings and rallies were allowed only in two dozen cities, many people came to nonlicensed protest gatherings and took the risk of being fined or beaten by the police. Finally, a significant share of protesters were college and high school students, which hasn’t been the case for most protests in Russia over the last 100 years.
The regime apparently did not expect such a large-scale mobilization, and it used coercion toward protesters not preemptively but only when rallies were in full swing. If estimates are correct that more than 1,000 people were arrested in Moscow, that would be the highest number since 1993.
What kind of lessons will be learned by the Kremlin after last Sunday?
The regime has a lot of grounds to be worried. Presumably it intends to curtail protests by every possible means. It will try harder and will increase the scope and intensity of coercion and control, especially with regard to the use of Internet and social media as well to alternative web resources. Also, we may witness harsher oppression — as well as the possible use of physical violence — toward the regime’s rivals.
The question is to what extent these steps will prevent further anti-regime activism amid the continuing decline of the real income of millions of Russians.
The good news is that politics in Russia in the coming months most probably will not be boring anymore. The bad news, however, is that the authoritarian regimes across the globe rarely conceded peacefully and bloodlessly, and Russia will not be an exception.