On Sunday, March 26, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the center of Moscow and in 80 other Russian regions to protest corruption in the top levels of government (see EDM, March 27). In some cities, the anti-corruption rallies and marches were allowed by the authorities; while in Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere, officials declared those demonstrations illegal. In all cases, the gatherings were absolutely peaceful and nonaggressive, but still their participants were routinely viciously attacked by riot police. Some 1,030 people were arrested in Moscow; over a hundred were detained in St. Petersburg and Makhachkala. Most were released the next day, pending possible further sentencing by administrative courts, which could level fines against them of up to 20,000 rubles ($350). Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who called for the anti-corruption protests, was arrested moments after appearing in downtown Moscow, on March 26; he was fined 20,000 rubles the next day and handed a 15-day prison sentence. A number of other activists and Navalny supporters were fined and given prison sentences of 4–24 days (Ng.ru, March 27).
On March 2, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (Fond Borby s Korruptsyey—FBK) released an investigative video that went viral and has had over 14 million hits in Russia. The video alleges Dmitry Medvedev (current prime minister and former president from 2008 to 2012) has secretly amassed a multi-billion-dollar real estate empire of lucrative country residencies and spacious mansions, some of which were allegedly provided as gifts by Russian oligarchs. These residencies and other real estate holdings are controlled by a network of charitable foundations, but Navalny alleges Medvedev is the true beneficiary and owner (YouTube, March 2). The authorities and the Kremlin ignored the anti-Medvedev video, dismissing it as lowly propaganda. Navalny called on the public to demonstrate on March 26 to demand a reply from Medvedev. The massive public response was surprisingly robust, with thousands all over Russia ready to brave the brutal riot police, arbitrary arrests and possible prison sentences. A sizable part of the protest crowds was made up of teenagers and people just over 20 years old—university and high school students, who have lived all or most of their lives under President Vladimir Putin (in power since 2000). These young people had heretofore been considered politically inert and under the influence of massive pro-Putin state propaganda. Of course, older opposition supporters also gathered in downtown Moscow for the march. Some teenagers came together with their parents. In response to the rally, the police apparently started grabbing pedestrians at random: several foreigners and journalists were arrested and spent many hours on police buses or in precincts before being released (Mk.ru 1 & 2, March 27).
The Russian authorities are visibly struggling to formulate a coherent policy in response to the March 26 rallies and the active involvement of young people in the revived protest movement. Navalny was arrested and his FBK office was raided by the political police—the internal ministry’s (MVD) “Tsenter E,” or anti-extremist force. All computers and other electronic FBK equipment was seized, while all Foundation activists were arrested on bogus charges of resisting police and promptly handed fines and prison sentences of up to 25 days (Ng.ru, March 28). With Navalny behind bars and the FBK effectively shut down, the authorities apparently hope no one else is left to organize any immediate follow-up mass protests, giving the government time to consider further moves. It is also possible that this time the authorities may put Navalny behind bars permanently. Navalny has earlier been convicted on fraud and embezzlement charges in trumped-up politically-motivated cases, though his sentence has been suspended. This allows the authorities to lock him up anytime they wish. Navalny may face additional criminal charges for organizing the March 26 protests.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has accused “the organizers of the protests [i.e. Navalny]” of “provocation and deceit that lured children into the streets.” Peskov also added a ridiculous accusation that Navalny had offered “the children” money to encourage them to protest (Interfax, March 27). As on previous instances when faced with an unpleasant or potentially threatening situation, President Putin kept silent for several days before speaking publicly on the subject. On March 30, the Russian leader finally publicly denounced the protesters’ use of anti-corruption slogans to achieve political goals. Putin angrily pushed back against Western criticism of Russian police actions to suppress the absolutely peaceful public protests by asserting that Western police forces also use violence to counter demonstrations. Putin recalled the events of the so-called “Arab Spring” (a mass popular uprising that rocked the Middle East in 2011) and the overthrow of corrupt Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 (in the so-called EuroMaidan), which were, indeed, both largely motivated by anti-corruption sentiments. “We all know the bloody outcomes of these events,” concluded Putin with obvious dread (Interfax, March 30).
The Kremlin is apparently responding to the March 26 protests with a combination of mounting repression, prosecutions and vicious propaganda. Putin declared that he is, of course, against fraud and would like the population to join the government’s anti-corruption fight. But then he added something no one in Russia is likely to believe: “The problem of corruption in Russia has recently decreased, and the people see that” (Interfax, March 30). The Russian prime minister seems to have turned into a political liability, but Putin will hold his ground against the likes of Navalny and defend Medvedev against all odds. Navalny’s video is almost certainly not going to initiate any kind of official investigation; the authorities will ignore it, as before, to their peril.
Russia has seen some 25 consecutive months of slow, but relentless economic decline. Production, investments, household incomes, and retail sales of everything have been declining. The price of oil—Russia’s main commodity—has fallen dramatically. The country has locked horns with the West and is on the receiving end of punitive sanctions. Russia has engaged in increasingly costly conflicts in Syria and with Ukraine, while trying to finance an ambitious multi-trillion-ruble rearmament program. The vastly corrupt ruling super-rich elite is keeping up its overtly lavish lifestyle, while the population struggles. Young Russians, ready to enter the job market, are especially hard-hit by the economic slump—a college education does not guarantee a good job. Some 14 percent of the country’s security guards and retail salespeople in low-income dead-end jobs are college (university)–educated Russians (Dengi, December 5). Putin may be right to be nervous—there are indeed similarities with the Middle East just before the Arab spring.