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?
For the first one, we hear from Graeme Robertson, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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.
Any government response will bring out more protesters
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.
Putin has options, so don’t expect change
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.
Social media changed the playing field
For part 4, we hear from Sergiy Kudelia, an assistant professor of political science at Baylor University.
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.
Now the opposition is setting the agenda
For this post, the fifth in the symposium, we hear from Dinissa Duvanova, associate professor of international relations at Lehigh University.
In evaluating the effect of the current protests, it is important to remember that there has been protest in Putin’s Russia previously. In 2011-2012, hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest the rigged legislative elections. In 2015, about 20,000 marched through Moscow to protest the killing of Russian opposition leader.
In both cases, the Putin regime proved largely resilient to these outbursts of public discontent. The question is: Will the most recent protests be any different? One important difference is that for the first time since Putin took office, the opposition appears to be driving the protest agenda.
Sunday’s protests did not emerge out of nowhere. Instead, on March 2, the Anti-Corruption Foundation — headed by the well-known blogger and opposition politician Alexey Navalny — released a sensational documentary exposing top-level corruption schemes. The report documented the illicit enrichment, flamboyant lifestyle and multitudes of luxurious real estate possessions of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Last week Navalny toured Russian provinces promoting the scandalous documentary and bringing attention to the kleptocratic nature of Russia’ ruling elite.
The anti-corruption message is likely to resonate well with the Russian public. Transparency International consistently ranks the country at the bottom 25 percent of the world in perception of corruption.
To that Navalny added a powerful social justice appeal: While the Russian economy struggles with declining oil revenue and economic sanctions, the country’s elites plunder the state to satisfy their ever-growing appetite for luxury.
This signifies an important change in tactics for the Russian opposition. Instead of trying to block particular political moves by the Kremlin that largely remain opaque for an average Russian, the current mobilization effort revolves around issues that can resonate with many Russians’ everyday experiences. This week the opposition took people to the streets as part of its offensive on the corrupt regime, not as a desperate attempt to show disagreement with particular political development.
This proactive role of the opposition sets current protests apart from the previous episodes of popular mobilization, demonstrating that Kremlin is not the sole political force in Russia. This in itself constitutes a meaningful change in Russian politics.
How will the Kremlin react to this new challenge?
For this post, the sixth in the symposium, we hear from Vladimir Gel’man, professor of political science at the European University at St. Petersburg/University of Helsinki.
The wave of protest rallies, which hit Russia’s cities on March 26 and brought an estimated 60,000 or more Russians to the streets, might be perceived by the Kremlin as a new challenge to its authoritarian rule.
The previous wave of post-election protests of 2011-2012 was curtailed through the “politics of fear,” a strategy that relied on low-intensity coercion, intimidation and public discrediting of the regime’s opponents. It proved successful. Afterward, the September 2016 parliamentary elections resulted in the unchallenged dominance of pro-Kremlin parties.
How were these protests different from previous protests?
Predictions of continued inertia and apathy in the face of the coming 2018 presidential elections may not turn out to be correct. The opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his team mobilized Russians against high-profile corruption and targeted the weakest link at the Kremlin, namely Prime Minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev. The video of corruption accusations produced by Navalny’s team was viewed by more than 11 million Russians and triggered a new round of mobilization, which is different from the previous one in several respects.
First, the anti-corruption issue unites various and diverse segments of Russians, serving as an effective glue for a would-be anti-regime “negative coalition.”
Second, despite the fact that meetings and rallies were allowed only in two dozen cities, many people came to nonlicensed protest gatherings and took the risk of being fined or beaten by the police. Finally, a significant share of protesters were college and high school students, which hasn’t been the case for most protests in Russia over the last 100 years.
The regime apparently did not expect such a large-scale mobilization, and it used coercion toward protesters not preemptively but only when rallies were in full swing. If estimates are correct that more than 1,000 people were arrested in Moscow, that would be the highest number since 1993.
What kind of lessons will be learned by the Kremlin after last Sunday?
The regime has a lot of grounds to be worried. Presumably it intends to curtail protests by every possible means. It will try harder and will increase the scope and intensity of coercion and control, especially with regard to the use of Internet and social media as well to alternative web resources. Also, we may witness harsher oppression — as well as the possible use of physical violence — toward the regime’s rivals.
The question is to what extent these steps will prevent further anti-regime activism amid the continuing decline of the real income of millions of Russians.
The good news is that politics in Russia in the coming months most probably will not be boring anymore. The bad news, however, is that the authoritarian regimes across the globe rarely conceded peacefully and bloodlessly, and Russia will not be an exception.
This may discredit Putin in the next election
For this post, the seventh in the symposium, we hear from Regina Smyth, professor of political science at Indiana University.
Too often, analysts see the effects of protest events as revolutionary or insignificant. Since revolutions are rare, protests that do not spark regime change are usually relegated to the insignificant category.
This type of thinking was evident in much of the press analysis that I read of the Russian anti-corruption protest on March 26, 2017. I would argue that it impeded clear thinking regarding the true influence of the event.
This protest — framed as a call for government investigation of corruption by Prime Minister Medvedev — will not lead to revolution and it was probably not designed to do so. Rather, it was a part of a broader vision for political evolution that starts with civic engagement as a mechanism to disrupt of the regime’s strategy for managing the next election. In this regard, protest leaders will be heartened by the young people who joined them on Sunday. They should also be encouraged by the effectiveness of regional efforts to mobilize through social media.
A year before President Putin faces a re-election contest in March 2018, the Kremlin’s proxies have already begun announcing the outcome of that contest. They have framed the election as a referendum on popular trust in President Putin, which will be communicated by an overwhelming victory in a high turnout contest.
The focus on voter participation reflects the Kremlin’s concern with low turnout in urban centers in the 2017 parliamentary elections, which has been construed as latent opposition. They are right to be concerned.
Analysis of public opinion data shows that the same voters who failed to turn out for the 2017 parliamentary elections are most likely to join protests. The March 26 events in cities across Russia demonstrate the lack of support for the president and creates the potential for escalation and the transfer of protest from the streets to the ballot box, as it did in 2011. The Kremlin may be forced to abandon electoral modernization — defined as institutional manipulation of elections — and flatly falsify results to achieve its goals.
Popular discontent is also likely to spark elite debate. The reform and institutionalization of new coercive forces since 2011 strengthened the constituency for repressive response within the government. While the current sentences of those arrested on Sunday appear quite light, it is likely that the regime is buying time while it debates the final response. With rumors of injured police officers and even a police death, there will be a pressure on President Putin to respond with new charges and stiff sentences.
Increased repression further closes off a path of regime reform and increases the uncertainty in the “stable” political system. Just as the “failed” protests of 2011 profoundly changed the regime’s trajectory, these events will have far reaching effects on the mechanisms that link state and society.
To understand the nature of change, we will need to watch how the legal cases play out, the variation in response across different regions of Russia, and the Kremlin’s rhetoric and organization around the March 2018 election.
Young Russians are joining in, against expectations
For this post, the eighth in the symposium, we hear from Tomila Lankina, professor in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The recent protests in Russia represent a significant shift in the nature and scope of mobilization against the Putin regime.
Alexei Navalny’s strategy of mobilizing large numbers of people was highly effective. Protests rallied around the issue of corruption, which was made poignant in the video that Navalny and his associates produced about the empire of real estate that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has amassed. In particular, clever use of drone technology and geo-locator tracking allowed Navalny’s colleagues to not only link Medvedev to the properties, but also prove that the pictures he took and placed on his social media were located precisely in those territories.
The humor — and ridicule — in Navalny’s revelations about corruption, in turn, facilitated the rallying of Russia’s youths.
Indeed, a key shift in the dynamics of popular mobilization in Russia is the demographic aspect of participation: Many commentators witnessing the rallies noted the youthfulness of the protesters. Many were school-age children, who lampooned the regime’s attempts to brainwash the next generation with the help of regime-compliant teachers and textbooks presenting a particular version of Russian history that facilitates the reproduction of the current regime in power.
The peculiarities of the protesters’ demographic makeup, in turn, raises questions about the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s strategy of socializing the new generation around regime-reinforcing symbols and ideology.
The protest events also highlight the limits of the technologies that the Kremlin employs to manipulate public opinion. The younger protesters are avid users of social media and apps that facilitate construction of groups of the like-minded. They should be distinguished from the core of regime supporters who tend to obtain news from Kremlin-controlled television channels. The demographic shift in the protester base warrants scrutiny of the notion of a brainwashed “lost generation” applied to those raised and born in Putin’s Russia.