This past Sunday March 26th, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Russia. The significance of these protests is that they were not confined to the usual large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. They also, unlike previous protests, were not authorized by the authorities.
The man behind the protests was Alexei Navalny, no stranger to Russian activism. Although in dispute, he has declared his candidacy in the 2018 Russian presidential election against Vladimir Putin. Although a long shot, there is no guarantee he will even be on the ballot given a previous arrest for embezzlement- charges Navalny claims were cooked up by Putin to give him a criminal record. During the 2011-2012 protests, Navalny emerged as a charismatic leader of the opposition to the Putin regime. In 2013, he ran for and lost the Moscow mayor’s race but pulled in a surprising 27% of the vote.
What spurred the protests was an online video posted by Navalny highlighting corruption by prime minister Dimitri Medvedev. This was a smart move since he avoided a direct attack on Putin himself. His is proving himself a better opposition voice than previous ones by gauging public sentiment. Many of the leaders of the 2011 protests have moved on, left Russia, been marginalized, or in the case of Boris Nemtsov, assassinated. And unlike previous leaders, he is more in tune with the nationalist mood of the population.
This places Putin in somewhat of a quandry. If they jail Navalny for his embezzlement charges, Putin may inadvertently create a martyr. His arrest over the weekend already brought international condemnations. By letting him go, Putin runs the risk of more protests where he may find himself- not Medvedev- the target. Because Navalny can talk the nationalist talk, Putin cannot portray him a Western “fifth column” troublemaker.
There are three other major considerations and one end game for Putin. The first consideration is that the majority of protesters were very young. In Tomsk, the hero was a fifth grader who stood up to his pro-Putin teacher in a viral video. Although some may be too young to remember or care about the 2011 protests, they do know how they want to live. Many minors were among those arrested. Many of them know no one other than Putin as their leader. But as some experts have noted, the Kremlin does not know how to deal with young people.
Previously, the government had been adept at channeling youthful activism into pro-Putin programs called Nashi and other patriotic movements. They have recently backed off and local authorities have found it difficult to stage counter-protests to keep youth occupied. Most importantly, many of the protesters this year will be of voting age come 2018.
A second consideration is social media. Navalny’s video of Medvedev’s alleged corruption was viewed 13 million times on YouTube. It was a slick production. Despite Putin’s tightened control of the media and increasing control of the Internet, the fact remains 13 million Russians saw and some reacted to the video.
The third consideration is the geographical diversity of the protests. The 2011 ones were centered in Moscow and St. Petersburg which tend to be more elitist and liberal. This year was different as the protests were held from Siberia to Russia’s western borders. Over 100 protesters showed up in Nizhny Tagil- a town that in 2011 was going to send people to Moscow to attack anti-Putin protesters. In Makhachkala, 150 protesters were arrested in a city that gave Putin 90% of the vote. Police used snowplows in Omsk to disperse protesters. Navalny himself had toured Siberia and the Volga region prior to the protests.
Putin has tolerated Navalny organizing elites in Moscow. But his base of support lies outside Moscow and it is in these regions that Putin’s nationalist message plays better. During and after 2011, Putin played this class warfare game beautifully to solidify the population behind him. But as one protester ominously said: “We don’t want Syria; we want roads in Irkusk.”
The attack against Medvedev’s corruption also had a tinge of economic populism to it. Since the 2013 economic crisis in Russia, their GDP per capita has decreased from $15,500 to $9,900. Previous protests were ideological or calling for political change. This one addressed pocketbook issues. This genre of protest tends to be more persistent, determined and less fearful of government action.
The Kremlin appears to be vexed by Navalny at this point. Although portrayed as “massive protests” by the media, they did little than disrupt Sunday traffic. But, the police arrested at least 800 in Moscow just for showing up. Navalny himself was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in jail. At this point, Navalny has succeeded in changing the Kremlin’s preferred electoral dynamics for 2018. Although Putin’s approval rating stands at a hefty 84%, with the euphoria of the Crimean annexation and nationalist fervor abating, the mantra was “Putin or nothing.” Now it has evolved into “Putin or Navalny.”
However, Putin is likely to emerge the victor in this game of political chess. The Communist party in the Duma has called for an investigation into the alleged corruption. Although “an opposition party,” they usually do the Kremlin’s bidding. This is rare when this happens. The arrest last year of a high-ranking government official was viewed as an attack on Medvedev himself. And in response to these protests, Putin’s spokesman has said they would look into the concerns of those protests that were authorized.
There are many within Putin’s inner circle who now view Medvedev as weak and dispensable. It should also be remembered that Medvedev was the president at the time during the 2011-2012 protests that so angered Putin. Seen as the ultimate likely successor to Putin, Medvdev would likely pursue a more pro-Western liberal agenda.
Therefore, do not be surprised if Medvedev resigns sooner or later. Putin would get the glory and be the main beneficiary. Navalny would then either be neutralized, or he would have to risk going directly at a leader with an 84% approval rating. In either case, Putin holds most of the cards while Navalny gets the present spotlight.
No matter who wins the 2020 US presidential election, they will have to deal with Putin in Russia. Despite this burp in Russian politics, Putin once again comes out the winner.