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 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 ex-president) Dmitry Medvedev of a spectacular, and corrupt, accumulation of wealth, demanding an investigation. Protests struck in dozens of cities, widely dispersed, led not just by pensioners but also young people.
To understand these surprising protests, I asked experts on Russian politics from PONARS Eurasia to join an online symposium, answering:
Do the protests that took place across 99 cities in Russia last Sunday signify a meaningful change in Russian politics is likely? Why or why not?
For this post, the third in the symposium, we hear from Sarah Wilson Sokhey, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The Russian protests that recently took place are unlikely to signify a meaningful change in Russia politics unless they also create opposition to Putin. The protests were organized around a documentary — “On Vam Ni Dimon (Don’t Call Him Dimon)” — produced by Alexei Navalny and his supporters implicating Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in wide-reaching corruption and a web of high-end real estate including a vineyard in southern Russia.
Although the allegations are shocking, long-standing complaints about elite corruption in Russia have not, to date, sparked a successful opposition movement in Russia. Notably, the corruption accusations omit Putin, at least for now.
One possible scenario is that the protests could lead to a purging of corrupt officials which ushers Medvedev out and portrays Putin as a reformer. Indeed, some have speculated that Navalny’s material may have been leaked by those within the Kremlin who wish to see a shake-up.
It is possible that some Russian officials may see benefit in a kind of anti-corruption campaign leading up to presidential elections in 2018. Corruption is a long-standing complaint in post-communist Russia.
Even if the 2018 election serves as a kind of popularity test for Putin and not as a competitive presidential election, Putin and his backers have demonstrated that they have a genuine, strategic concern for maintaining some level of popular satisfaction.
The 2009 financial crisis and falling oil prices hurt the Russian economy. Sanctions imposed after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine have also had an effect, but a limited one. The government has already spent down much of its financial reserves and sought out short-term money by reversing pension reforms. As a result, Putin could be facing a presidential election after several less-than-ideal years of economic performance and with somewhat limited options.
The theory that insiders in the Kremlin leaked information about Medvedev to spark protests and to then — perhaps — justify an anti-corruption campaign seems like a risky and, therefore, unlikely strategy, albeit not entirely implausible. In support of the Kremlin conspiracy theory, some have questioned why Navalny has largely been allowed to stay out of jail and to stay alive if he does indeed pose a serious threat to Putin. After all, Boris Nemtsov was a less successful opposition leader when he was shot in downtown Moscow in 2015.
Nonetheless, exposing high-level corruption is a very risky strategy for an authoritarian regime and one that could snowball in ways the Kremlin would be unable to control.
For now, these protests appear to be somewhat similar to the protests we saw after the 2011 Duma and 2012 presidential elections. Despite the scale and international coverage of those protests, they failed to produce any long-term changes. Unless the corruption charges can be linked more directly to Putin — whose reelection is still a year away — the protests are unlikely to signify any major change.
The 2016 elections failed to produce a large protest movement. And if Putin is concerned about the results next year, election fraud is always an option.