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What Anti-Putin Protests Say About the Russian Opposition and its Electoral Chances

Triggered by a documentary on the secret wealth of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, recent anti-corruption rallies across Russia brought a new generation of protesters to the streets.

Protestors in Moscow on March 26. Credit: Reuters

Protestors in Moscow on March 26. Credit: Reuters

A week after tens of thousands of Russians rallied across the country to protest against corruption, hundreds of people remain detained, waiting for a trial. Many others were given between four and 25-day jail sentences or fined. Overall, more than 1,500 people were arrested across 80 Russian cities last weekend, according to various estimates. Just in Moscow, reports put the the number of people detained at more than 1,000.

Arrests, jail terms and heavy fines are not the only outcomes of recent protests. Many school children and students who participated in the demonstrations got unwanted attention from their teachers, professors and the police.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, April 2, people took to the streets again, most of them showing up at the Red Square in Moscow – only to witness heavy police deployment and new arrests. This time, the government was prepared and worked effectively to downplay the new possible wave of protests.

This was not the case a week before, when between 50,000 and 150,000 people took to the streets across the country. This is less than 0.1% of the country’s 143 million population, but in Russia, even this counts. Only in 24 cities out of 80 were the demonstrations pre-approved by the local governments. Elsewhere, arrests came almost as soon as the first signs were up in the air. Among those detained were many minors. Reporters Without Borders has said that 14 journalists were arrested while covering the demonstrations.

“Unlike in some European countries, the crowd protesting in St. Petersburg at least was well behaved, no shops have been broken and no cars have been burnt. Arresting people just for coming out to the streets is illegal,” said Nadezhda Zaitseva, one of the journalists detained while covering the protests in St. Petersburg.

The recent rallies were named the largest since the wave of protests in 2011 and 2012, when in Moscow the number of demonstrators was estimated at anywhere between 25,000 (officially) and 150,000. The so-called Bolotnaya protests (named after Bolotnaya Square, where they were held) were triggered by the results of 2011 parliamentary elections and 2012 presidential elections that brought Vladimir Putin back to power, after a four-year break during which Dmitry Medvedev, the current prime minister of Russia, served as the president.

“The difference between the 2012 protests and the recent ones is that now the anti-corruption agenda became very clear,” Zaitseva said. “Back in 2012, people were disappointed by the results of the elections, their non-transparency. Now, people are protesting against corruption, although the anti-Putin message was also loud. People are demanding the resignation of Putin and Medvedev, they are demanding changes.”

No answer for these demands followed. On the evening of March 26, when asked how his day was by an Instagram user, Medvedev replied with a smiley, saying, “Not bad, was skiing”.

“All this was unexpected for the government, the number of people who turned up on Sunday came as an unpleasant surprise for them,” said Evgeny Minchenko, one of the top political consultants in Russia, CEO of Minchenko Consulting and director of the International Institute for Political Expertise. “And I think they didn’t handle it well, the effective answer (to the protests and protesters’ demands) is yet to be found.”

Russia’s state media (yes, there is also private media in Russia not controlled by the government) completely ignored the protests. Interestingly, RT or Russia Today, Russian state TV network broadcasting abroad, flashed the news on the protests on its English-language platform but not on its Russian, Spanish or Arabic platforms.

The only news that appeared in the state media was the reaction of Kremlin that followed few days later. A day after the protests,Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov alleged that minors participated in the protests because they were promised “a reward” (on social media, schoolchildren and students denied this allegation).

Four days after the demonstrations, Putin said corruption should not become a tool for some political powers to misuse it. He also blamed Western countries for interfering in Russia’s internal affairs. The US and the EU had called on Russia to release the detained.

Trainers and ducks

The anti-corruption protests were sparked by the documentary He’s not Dimon to you (known also as Don’t call him Dimon) released earlier in March by the Anti-Corruption Foundation led by Russia’s currently most famous opposition leader, Alexey Navalny.

Dimon, the short form of Dmitry, is how internet users refer to Medvedev, an active user of social media.

In 2013, Natalya Timakova, the prime minister’s spokesperson said in an interview she felt very sad that people called Medvedev ‘Dimon’ instead of addressing him by name and the middle name – the polite form of addressing people in Russia. “He’s not Dimon to you,” she said then.

Four years later, Timakova sounded baffled on having to comment on the He’s not Dimon to you documentary. “To comment on opposition’s propaganda attacks coming from a convict who said he had already launched an election campaign and was fighting with the government is pointless,” Timakova told state news agency RIA Novosti.

Timakova is right in dubbing Navalny a convict. Earlier in February, a district court in Russia revived a four-year-old criminal conviction of Navalny, which bars him from attaining any political office and, therefore, running for president in 2018. He was first convicted of fraud in 2013. The new hearing was held recently, after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Navalny had not been given a fair hearing at the first trial.

Yet, back to Dimon – a very provoking film showcasing the prime minister’s wealth at times when Russian economy was in recession (although revised estimates of Russia’s central bank show that the country was back on the growth track in 2016) and the salaries of people across Russia were declining.

A year ago, the world was shocked by the revelations in the Panama Papers. Russia was not at all shocked, and just a handful of people showed up to protest.

Meanwhile, the Panama Papers named several people closely connected to Putin. Note that despite the fact that Putin’s portrait accompanied almost every article on the Panama Papers, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists investigation did not name Russian president directly (though it did name six country leaders, including presidents of Argentina, Sudan, Ukraine, UAE and leaders of several Arab countries). Instead, it named several businessmen and a famous cellist and close friend of the Russian president, Sergei Roldugin, who is believed to be the key person behind a huge offshore empire.

There are many reasons why the Panama Papers did not anger the Russians the way He’s not Dimon to you did. One can blame state propaganda’s blackout or the lack of reaction from the authorities – the tax department and the state prosecution – but anyone who knows Russia will understand: there was nothing “new” in those revelations. In Russia, modern, Soviet or imperial, power has always been associated with wealth. Not many people have a real problem with that. Not when one has to read through lengthy, complicated articles linked to even more complicated evidence to understand what’s really going on.

Police officers detain an opposition supporter during a rally in Vladivostok, Russia. Credit: Reuters/Yuri Maltsev

Police officers detain an opposition supporter during a rally in Vladivostok, Russia. Credit: Reuters/Yuri Maltsev

That is what Navalny and his team got just right. Their film about Medveded is so easy to follow, it’s also a nice piece of entertainment. For this very reason, the film has been widely shared on social media. People who do not generally read serious publications that covered the Panama Papers last year got to watch Navalny’s film: over 15 million views till date. Mind you, this is a little over 10% of Russia’s population.

The film talks about Medvedev owning large land plots, an elite estate, yachts and vineyards. Navalny’s drone successfully flew over some of those properties. It does make for some amazing shots!

Apart from luxury assets, Medvedev has a thing for expensive trainers and ducks. A pond in Medvedev’s 198-acre secret dacha (country house), the cost of which, according to the Anti-Corruption Foundation, could be estimated at $386-464 million, has a tiny house, possibly built for a duck.

In no time, trainers and yellow rubber ducks emerged as new symbols of Russia’s protest movement against corruption. To lead a protest wave, you need a simple and catchy message understood by a school child, a student, a businessmen and a pensioner. All genius is simple.

Wrecked opposition

The good news for the opposition ends there. Experts in Russia believe there is no chance that Navalny can contest the elections, at least at the moment. Apart from him, there is no one else who could emerge as a sound leader.

To say that the opposition does not exist in Russia would be doing it injustice. Historically, opposition in Russia has been represented by parliamentary (or systemic) and non-parliamentary (or non-systemic) groups.

The latter is considered to be the only “real” opposition, while the former is believed to be just acting as the opposition while in fact backing Putin and the current government.

Many analysts hold that parts of the systemic opposition are a creation of Kremlin itself, to be able to show Russia as a democratic country. As for the “real” opposition, so far it has not been able to secure its presence in parliament.

The latest Duma elections held in September 2016 marked a record low turnout, less than 50%. Out of 22 parties participating (in total, there are 75 political parties registered in Russia), only four got seats in parliament.

The everlasting leader, pro-Putin United Russia chaired by Medvedev, emerged as the absolute winner, securing 54% of the popular vote. The other three parties includes CPRF, the successor to the Communist Party, LDPR, led by the most famous populist in Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and A Just Russia, set up in 2006 allegedly by Kremlin itself as a counterweight to United Russia.

No other parties, including the liberal non-systemic opposition, could crack the 5% threshold.

Experts say the non-systemic opposition represented by parties like Yabloko, The Civic Platform, Party of Growth, the People’s Freedom Party and others, including unregistered factions like Open Russia (financed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled oil tycoon) is ineffective and divided on many issues, from ideology to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Syria.

While the opposition could not work out any cooperation model, it has been also constantly targeted by Putin’s government, with some leaders killed, imprisoned, driven into exile or denied media coverage.

“While last year’s elections in the single-member constituency allowed entry of several strong candidates from parties like CPRF and LDPR, thus helping the parliament opposition form a strong second tier, the non-parliamentary opposition is demoralised and annihilated after the 2016 elections. Today it, in fact, consists of barely anyone – just Navalny and Gudkov,” Minchenko said.

Dmitry Gudkov, a young and charismatic politician from Moscow, was the single opposition politician in 450-seat State Duma (the lower house of parliament) from December 2011 till October 2016. Gudkov is currently preparing to run for mayor of Moscow in September 2018.

“The real democratic opposition representing the progressive part of the society, which is around 15-20% in Russia, is not represented in the government or parliament and is being driven out constantly,” Gudkov said. “We are the only opposition that criticises Putin and his government, talks about corruption, the need for changing the system into a truly democratic society. The government doesn’t like it because they don’t want their liberties to be limited, they don’t want independent courts to hear the corruption cases against them.”

The recent rallies in Russia had no agitations from particular opposition parties. Experts believe that as long as the opposition remains divided, attacking it will be easier for Kremlin.

Navalny and his team, many of them currently in a detention centre, will most likely to continue their campaign even though Navalny will not be able to contest 2018 elections. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation seems to have solid funding. Large investments in social media and PR could keep his boat afloat. Anti-Corruption Foundation received around 39 million rouble in funding (less than $700,000) in 2015 and around 28.5 million rouble (less than $500,000 in 2015), and most of this was spent on the salaries of managers and office rent, according to the foundation’s annual reports.

Funding for Navalny as well as other opposition parties and movements remains somewhat an unpleasant question for the opposition. Interestingly, neither Russia’s liberal media sympathising with Navalny nor the foreign media covering his each and every move seem to be bothered by this question at all.

“The opposition receives financing, but it is very difficult to identify its internal and external sources. Overall, the financing structure is not transparent and it is difficult to discuss it,” Minchenko said. He added that state propaganda’s attempts to start such discussions in order to show the opposition up in the front of the voters failed, no one was really interested.

Facing Russia’s future voters

It is clear that Navalny and his team are playing the long game, betting on the 2024 elections which Putin will not be able to contest – unless he decides to change the constitution.

Aiming at 2024, Navalny is targeting the right audience. It is not just the intelligentsia in the capital cities, capable of criticising and reflecting, but hardly capable of demanding and bringing change, or the middle class aged between 30 and 50 that is quite angry and fed up, but not so much that they will risk their lives, families or businesses.

Navalny best bet are youngsters, who spend their time on social media and do not yet know the full realities of politics, but are eager to have a better future than that the one they are being promised.The rallies in Russia saw large participation of students and schoolchildren, many of whom decided to come after watching the documentary. Many of them admit they didn’t know much about Navalny or his foundation, but were angered by the video.

In Tomsk, one of the major cities in Siberia, a fifth-grade student Gleb Tokmakov addressed the meeting with a speech that caused outrage on social media. “What is important is to change the system of power itself, the education system, the healthcare system. I study at school and I am surprised that even schools are politicised. If you don’t draw a picture about our government, they will give you bad marks,” Tokmakov said.

Whether these are Tokmakov’s own thoughts or his parents’, who are probably now in their 30s (another target audience of the opposition), the trend is obvious: the state propaganda machine relying mainly on few TV channels, often called the “zombie-box” in Russia, is not reaching the new generation of potential protesters and future voters – the young people in Russia who haven’t lived under the rule of any other political leader but Putin.

Experts note that while the electorate in Russia may generally seem more apathetic than that of other countries, when it comes to political protests, this should be seen through the prism of Russia’s history – with several devastating revolutions and far more devastating wars.

For millennials, not only are 1917 revolution and two world wars only history, the 1991 coup and the Chechen wars are also things of the past. Unlike their parents and grandparents, millennials have not witnessed any large uprisings and have no first-hand experience of the consequences.

The real impact of recent protests in Russia can be debated, but it is clear that young people, the ones with access to social media and consuming news from the internet rather than state-controlled TV channels and newspapers, are the ones who will vote in 2024. How to influence their opinion, respond to their demands and make them promises is something both Russia’s ruling and opposition powers will have to figure out.

Ksenia Kondratieva is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, writing on economics, development and international relations.