Opposition supporters attend a rally in Vladivostok, Russia, on March 26. (Yuri Maltsev/Reuters)

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 not just by pensioners but also by 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 across 99 cities in Russia on Sunday signify a meaningful change in Russian politics is likely? Why or why not?

For this second post in the symposium, we hear from From Theodore P. Gerber, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia at the University of Wisconsin:

The street protests against government corruption throughout Russia on Sunday are the most important development in Russian politics since the annexation of Crimea in February 2014. There are five reasons they pose a major challenge to the Kremlin:

1) Their geographic diversity and size show that discontent over corruption and a general malaise in Russian society are widespread, not just concentrated in a few areas.

This means the central government cannot focus counterefforts on just a few places but must consider measures to deal with potential unrest throughout the entire country, which will tax its resources and raise questions about the capacity of the central government to act in a unified and concerted manner.

2) So many young people among the demonstrators suggests this generation is not accepting the pro-Putin consensus as promoted by the regime.

Youths traditionally are key players in social upheavals, and the apparent discontent of young Russians at the bill of goods their government has sold them has potentially incendiary consequences.

3) The anti-corruption theme is extremely dangerous to the government.

It cannot dismiss the anti-corruption issue as a “Western import” in the same way it has done with, say, pro-democracy slogans. Several decades of sociological research show that corruption is a perennial complaint of Russian citizens, and with good reason: It adversely impacts their lives on a daily basis. No Russian politician can publicly dismiss or downplay the seriousness of corruption without provoking mockery.

Pervasive corruption also undermines the logic of the Putin administration’s “deal” with Russians: Sacrifice your own economic well-being and endure sanctions so that President Vladimir Putin can protect the Russian nation from foreign threats. This offer sounds hollow when those at the top are not sharing in the sacrifices but, rather, continuing to enrich themselves while everyone else is tightening their belts. Corruption is often too nebulous to galvanize public unrest, and when clear perpetrators are identified, they can be sacrificed to defuse public anger. But that is not likely to be a successful counterstrategy in this issue.

4) There is no obvious response that the authorities can take that will not lead to further mobilization.

If authorities try to sacrifice a few key officials (e.g. by dismissing or even jailing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev), they will send the signal that protest is an effective way for society to influence government police, thereby setting the stage for more protests. If they crack down aggressively, they risk a major tragedy that could rapidly turn the public strongly against them — already the optics of police manhandling women, children, and elderly peaceful demonstrators are not good. If they do nothing, they appear weak.

They can arrest and intimidate leaders of the protests, but Sunday’s turnout shows that intimidation is no longer working: Discontent is powerful enough to inspire many to risk their own personal harm to express their grievances.

5) These protests are not happening in a vacuum: Localized economic protests throughout the country have risen for several years.

So far, economic and related protests have had an inchoate, disorganized character. The national scope and political character of Sunday’s actions will embolden and inspire anti-government activists at the local level to redouble their efforts to organize, mobilize, and coordinate across regions, platforms, and constituencies.

This post is the second in the symposium. Here you can find the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth