Symposium introduction: On Sunday, the unexpected happened in Russia. Across the country, coordinated anti-corruption protests drew tens of thousands of people. Ostensibly these were not directed 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 ex-president) Dmitry Medvedev of a spectacular, and corrupt, accumulation of wealth, demanding an investigation. Protests struck dozens of cities, were widely dispersed and were led by pensioners and young people.
To understand these surprising protests, I asked experts on Russian politics from PONARS Eurasia to join an online symposium, answering the question:
Do the protests that took place across 99 cities in Russia on Sunday signify that meaningful change in Russian politics is likely? Why or why not?
March 26 — remember the date! Thousands of citizens — many of them students — took to the streets in cities across Russia. They did so in defiance of local bans on protest and strict federal legislation prohibiting unsanctioned political action. Many were beaten, and many more were arrested for their trouble.
The willingness of large numbers of people in dozens of towns to defy the state on this scale in itself represents a major escalation of the challenge to the ruling regime in Russia. People have defied prohibitions against protest before, but rarely in such large numbers and across so many localities
However, more important than the numbers is the nature of the grievances expressed by the protesters. This is not just a complaint about the bosses stealing workers’ wages, or about cronies forcing changes in working conditions for truckers, or elites stealing parkland for development. It is not even about corruption in counting ballots in elections. All these issues have been front and center in protest movements in Russia for the past decade and remain important. However, in each case, it has been plausible to argue that the “good tsar” was ignorant of his underling’s corrupt actions.
This time is different. While couched in general anti-corruption terms, these protests were driven to a significant extent by extraordinary new evidence of corruption in President Vladimir Putin’s innermost circle, directed at Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Putin’s prime minister. Putin’s stand-in. Putin’s creature. It could not get any closer to home than this.
The taint of corruption that already affects the ruling United Russia party, and so much of the elite, is creeping closer and closer to the door of the national symbol himself.
Moreover, though state controlled media have ignored both the protests and the corruption allegations, word may be getting out. The video documenting the allegations against Medvedev, produced by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has had more than 15 million views on YouTube in the four weeks since it was posted. This is 15 times more than a videoblog posted back in October alleging corruption involving Putin’s daughter.
This is a very dangerous development for Putin. Much of Putin’s power these days relies on his ability to present himself as being above politics, as being more a national symbol than a president. The Putin administration has successfully created an association between support for Putin and loyalty to the Russian state itself. This status has protected his popularity during economic crises, international sanctions and even failed military adventures in Ukraine. While virtually every other indicator of Russians’ attitude toward politics has gotten worse over the past couple of years, Putin’s popularity has remained robust.
But widespread knowledge of corruption in the inner circle — especially on the part of probably including Putin himself — has the potential to change all that. You cannot be father of the nation and be caught lining your own pockets at the same time. We are in new territory now.