All across Russia this weekend, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against corruption. The predominantly young crowd was spurred into action by opposition internet activist and aspiring politician Alexey Navalny, whose most recent slickly produced video exposé of high-level government corruption—this time targeting Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev directly—has been watched more than 12 million times on YouTube. Russian officials put the crowds in Moscow at 7,000 (a number almost certainly underestimating the true attendance by at least half), with tens of thousands more turning out in 82 cities across the country, including strong showings in St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, and Novosibirsk, and smaller but no less impressive gatherings in places like Vladivostok in the country’s Far East and Makhachkala in Dagestan.
International media characterized the protests as the best-attended demonstrations since those of 2011–12 challenged Vladimir Putin’s grip on power as he prepared to once again run for his third term as President. This is not exactly accurate. Even if we were to more than double the official tally for attendance in Moscow alone, the protest would still be dwarfed by demonstrations that have regularly sprung up in the capital over the past few years. The 2011–12 protests, triggered by reports of widespread voter fraud but ultimately targeted at Putin, had hundreds of thousands out in the streets. When Russia annexed Crimea and started the conflict with Ukraine, a number of well-attended protests sprung up in Moscow against the war, drawing out as many as 70,000. (Though officially about the war, those protests also were directed against Putin; people may not have been as full-throated about it, but chants and signs did insist that the Russian President had to go.)
Nevertheless, one shouldn’t underplay Navalny’s achievement. Even if totals in any one city were not record-breaking, the fact that the protests sprung up all across the country was largely unprecedented. And if one judges by the number of arrests, authorities were caught off guard. Independent observers said as many as 1,030 people were arrested across the country under the pretense of “disturbing the peace,” since most of the protests were not officially sanctioned. (Of those, more than 900 were arrested in Moscow, which demonstrates where the Kremlin’s attention is still focused.) Navalny himself was arrested early and spent the night in the clink. The offices of his Anti-Corruption Foundation were raided, and all staffers present were also hauled off to jail.
Will Navalny’s protest keep or gain momentum? On the one hand, it’s never wise to bet against the resourcefulness of modern, internet-powered activists. Since 2012, Navalny and his colleagues have been improving their online game. The videos are now engaging and skillfully produced, dripping with equal measures of outrage and mockery. Navalny has clearly figured out a way to make temperature-raising viral content out of what is otherwise a stultifying and opaque paper trail. The fact that the crowds that turned out over the weekend skewed younger is a testament to his appeal to the internet generation.
On the other hand, the youthfulness of the protesters may limit the movement’s broader appeal. There were many moments that proved very photogenic over the weekend, perhaps none more so than the sight of a young woman being carried off by four men in riot gear. But the truth is that the police were relatively restrained throughout the protests, perhaps because they were aware that footage of jackbooted thugs beating children could rouse the parents to join in subsequent protests. Indeed, the narrative coming out of the Kremlin this morning is that the “youth” were “misled” by Navalny, maybe even “bribed”1 to participate in protests and get arrested. The whole thing is being framed as youthful over-exuberance leading to some urban unruliness.
More broadly, Russia is a very different place than it was even five years ago. With the presidency back in his hands, Putin has cracked down hard on civil society as a whole, by using “anti-terror” legislation to curtail freedom of speech both online and off, and by harassing non-governmental organizations into either submission or extinction. It’s quite possible, and even likely, that with a sharp elbow to the teeth of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, what has been started will quickly fizzle out.
But as regular readers know, this story is more about a power struggle than about people power: This weekend’s protests were just the latest visible evidence of a fight that has long been stewing inside the bowels of Putin’s deep state. There were already signs earlier last year that Medvedev position was becoming precarious. Rumors of a clique in the Kremlin plotting Medvedev’s ouster had been circulating ever since the Prime Minister disastrously bungled questions from an angry public over worsening economic conditions. Many also saw the removal late last year of Alexey Ulyukaev, the highest ranking official to ever be arrested in Russia, as a hit against Medvedev himself.
Then, last month, Navalny published his exposé of Medvedev, an event that most Western observers greeted as one of those rare moments in recent Russian history where the forces of transparency and accountability manage to shine through the corrupt murk of Putin’s regime. Alas, that’s just not how things work: In a police state like Russia, investigative journalism is something that happens only when powerful interests want to screw over their rivals. These particular revelations about Medvedev’s ill-gotten gains held a specific private message intended for Putin himself: Your chosen heir apparent is unfit to succeed you. He is weak, and we can get to him. We have tarnished his reputation as a moderate Western-oriented reformer, and he won’t be able to protect you and your associates’ wealth when you retire.
Navalny, who had announced that he would run against Putin in 2018, clearly knows that his chances are slim-to-none if there’s no shake-up before March of next year. And he is no fool. He knows better than anyone in Russia how strategic leaking at the highest levels indicates that an important power struggle is afoot. Perhaps he calculated that a push now was the best chance he would have to cause some kind of turmoil up high—to, in other words, “not only strike while the iron is hot, but make it hot by striking.” Did he calculate correctly? More importantly, did Medvedev’s enemies miscalculate by dishing their dirt to Navalny?
Sadly, the answer to the above questions is “probably not.” In the final analysis, there is little doubt that the Russian state could violently crush any kind of meaningful, sustained revolt in its cities; after all, it’s not for nothing that Putin created the National Guard early last year, under the command of his trusted bodyguard Viktor Zolotov. Shortly after the announcement of the organization’s founding, videos leaked of National Guard troops training to put down peaceful protests in urban areas.
Of course, it’s always better not to resort to such measures if you don’t have to. So perhaps, especially if the protests die down quickly and Putin doesn’t feel like he needs to project a united front, we’ll see Medvedev resign sooner rather than later, maybe even to be reassigned to a fitting retirement post somewhere else in the government. And things may be headed that way. In an unprecedented move, Putin’s Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, speaking on state-run TV, indicated the criticism directed at authorities voiced at authorized protests would be taken into consideration. This could be read as a tacit acknowledgment that someone will have to be held accountable for the country’s corruption problem.
In that case, the winner of the protests will have been Putin. Medvedev will have taken the hit before a public growing increasingly unhappy with declining living standards, and will have deflected some of the heat off of his boss. The man who annexed Crimea, started a war with Ukraine, tanked Russia’s economy, launched crushing political repressions, and is the godfather of corruption both in Russia and abroad, will live to fight another day. The irony should not be lost on anyone: in 2011-2012, the anti-Putin protests were allowed by then-President Medvedev, who was seen by most liberals as a the best hope for reform. This weekend’s protests may end up saving the former at the expense of the latter.
If things do play out like this, watch for who takes over as Prime Minister. It will tell us a lot about which faction in the Kremlin is ascendant. One thing seems exceedingly likely: It won’t be a pro-Western reformer—not even a sham reformer like Medvedev himself.
1The Kremlin’s case here is not a mere fabrication. Navalny appears to have told his supporters prior to the protests that the Moscow protest was de jure legal, and that anyone who might end up arrested could sue in the European Court for Human Rights and win up to €10,000 (the amount the same court awarded Navalny recently).