Sunday’s wave of unsanctioned mass protests that broke out across Russia took the Kremlin entirely by surprise. The rallies were the largest in Russia since the pro-democracy protests in 2011-2012 and centered on a dual theme of anti-corruption and anti-government. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in response to Russian opposition leader Alexi Navaly’s exposé on the extravagant real estate holdings of current prime minister and former president Dimitri Medvedev. Navaly urged Russians to go out and protest Medvedev, naming 26 March as the day to do so. The response was greater than Navaly likely expected as people took to the streets in St. Petersberg, Moscow, Vladivostok and many cities in between. Ekho Moskvy, an independent radio station, put the numbers at 60,000 people taking part in 80 protests across Russia on Sunday. Over 1,000 arrests were made and Navaly was one of those detained. Today he was convicted of disobeying police, sentenced to 15 days in jail and fined 20,000 rubles (roughly $355) for organizing an unsanctioned protest.
The rallies were labeled a ‘provocation’ by the Kremlin. A Kremlin spokesman even implied that a number of the protesters were in the streets simply because they had been paid to be there. In any event, Sunday’s protests have likely rattled the Russian government. Unsanctioned rallies were made illegal after the 2011-2012 protests. In spite of this, thousands of people defied the law and came out to join yesterday’s protests.
Russia is a large nation and the geographic spread of the protests indicates that the anti-corruption theme has struck a chord with a large section of the population. It is useful to note the lack of a pro-democracy cause in the protests. Democracy has been largely viewed as a sour word in Russia since the 1990s. Russians are content to live with a form of government which does not mirror the liberal democratic foundation of many Western nation-states so long as corruption is kept in check. The economic crisis that Russia has been facing has eased. Conditions are not bad as they were two years ago, but recovery has been elusive. The average Russian citizen is making do with less and to see their political rulers such as Medvedev living a lavish lifestyle is too much for many to overlook.
For Vladimir Putin the stakes are even more significant. The opposition has a face now in Navaly, and momentum on its side. What happens next is unclear, however, if Putin does not tread carefully and a period of unrest descends upon Russia, he will be forced to take action to secure his position ahead of the 2018 elections. That action could come at home or, just as conceivably, abroad.