People gather at Marsivo Field in St. Petersburg on March 26 as part of nationwide protests against the Russian government. (Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press)

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 ex-president) Dmitry Medvedev of a spectacular, and corrupt, accumulation of wealth, 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 experts on Russian politics from PONARS Eurasia to join an online symposium, answering this question:

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 part 4, we hear from Sergiy Kudelia, an assistant professor of political science at Baylor University.

Joshua Tucker

The Russian anti-corruption protests revealed several weaknesses of the ruling regime. These may provide an opening for the opposition movement in the future.

1) Social media enable quick and broad mobilization.

First, they demonstrated that large enough protests can be organized and coordinated across Russia with minimum costs and in a fairly short period of time. Alexei Navalny announced the protest action in a YouTube video just 12 days before it was scheduled to occur. No political parties supported the action, which means Nalavany’s team organized it without external political resources and relied primarily on social media for cross-country mobilization.

Protests also became possible outside of the election cycle and were triggered by the anti-corruption investigation shared exclusively online.

This shows that the opposition can now breach state’s monopoly on distributing information without gaining access to major television channels.

2) The usual tools of repression didn’t work — and new ones haven’t arrived.

Second, the threat of coercion is no longer a sufficient deterrent for protest participants. The March 26 actions were the largest unsanctioned protest action in Russia’s post-Soviet history. Previously, the state’s refusal to authorize a protest rally was enough to dampen participation, since the cost of joining “illegal” action could be particularly high.

The latest march in Moscow continued even after the police began to detain numerous demonstrators, including Navalny. Younger people, who attended the march in particularly large numbers, may be especially immune to the state’s traditional repressive instruments.

At the same time, the Russian authorities do not have any new tools to counter this unconventional approach to protest organizing. The editorial decisions to avoid covering protests on major television channels may only deepen people’s distrust of the traditional media sources and encourage them to look for news elsewhere. Medvedev’s refusal to address Navalny’s allegations would serve as a proof of his culpability.

3) This movement threatens to disrupt the 2018 Russian presidential campaign.

Third, the protests may also change the dynamic of 2018 Russian presidential campaign. Navalny’s formal exclusion from the race is no longer enough to neutralize a political threat he represents. He has become a focal point for collective dissent in Russia and, hence, can compete with Putin on the streets. He is also organizing campaign events around the country as if he is a registered candidate.

This creates a difficult dilemma for the Russian president. New coercive measures against Navalny and his team will be a sign of Putin’s weakness and may trigger popular backlash. On the other hand, if Putin allows Navalny to run a parallel presidential campaign, but still bars his name from the ballot, Putin’s legitimacy may be in question, particularly for the younger generation, casting a shadow on his next six years in office.

Regardless of the president’s choices, Russia’s future political trajectory will as much depend on the scale of social mobilization as on the decisions in the Kremlin.

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