President Vladimir Putin has managed to maintain a high level of popularity in Russia. A Russian news source, TASS, stated that a report from the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center placed Putin’s approval rating for the last week of February at 86.1% – the highest weekly rate this year. According to the Yuri Levada Analytical Center, the President’s approval rating hasn’t fallen below eighty percent in the past three years.
Despite all this, police detained hundreds of protestors in Moscow on March 26 – only one singular incident in a series of unanticipated protests across 82 towns and cities. Among those arrested was Alexei Navalny, a prominent opponent of the government, who has been sentenced to fifteen days in prison. The question is, what has incited the largest protest in Russia over the past four years?
The protests mirrored the anti-government demonstrations between 2011 and 2013– with the largest taking place on May 6, a day before Putin’s assumption of presidential powers. Mikhail Zygar, a journalist and author of the book All the Kremlin’s Men, suggests that the younger protesters were not anti-Putin; in fact, they were mainly supportive of Putin due to his strong foreign policy, however, it was the domestic policy that they were targeting – with the responsibility being pinned on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
In a similar way, Navalny has alleged that Medvedev had illicitly collected several properties, including palaces, yachts, and vineyards, during his tenure. In his report, he claims that the aforementioned properties were purchased using loaned money funnelled from state banks as well as bribes from oligarchs, totalling over $1 billion.
The internet, however, has been far less dismissive of Navalny’s videoed version of the accusations, which has obtained over fourteen million views on YouTube, and more than sixty-eight thousand comments, mostly from Russians who support its message. Navalny stated that he gathered his information from publicly available documents, documents which various other online news sources and influential newspapers have also shared.
Nevertheless, state-operated television and print publications have either ignored or dismissed these. Natalya Timakova, spokeswoman for Medvedev, said that “propaganda insinuations,” did not deserve a response. Echoing Timakova’s words, President Putin’s spokeman, Dmitry Peskov, named Navalny as a “notorious convicted citizen.”
Navalny received a five-year suspended sentence on February 9 for committing embezzlement. Originally convicted in 2013, the Supreme Court of Russia threw out the earlier ruling after the European Court of Human Rights uncovered that Navalny did not receive a fair trial.
Notwithstanding the fact that this criminal offence would bar him from being on the ballot, he remains determined to run in the 2018 presidential election. Even if he was allowed to stand for office, the Levada Center reported that forty-seven percent of 1600, Russians surveyed knew of Navalny, yet only ten percent of them would consider voting for him.
Still, he continues to travel and open campaign offices across the country. Navalny has used his position as an outsider to Moscow’s political bubble as a tool to propagate his platform to disenfranchised youth in provincial areas. These people attended the rallies to show their support and appreciation towards the cause.
Kirill Martynov, a Russian journalist, referred to younger protesters as “nobody’s people” with nothing to lose; writing that “The experience of today’s 11th grader is never-ending Putin and Medvedev, enmity with the whole world, crazy propaganda and grown-ups who lie.”
A video surfaced of a young Siberian boy, named Glev Takmakov, where he serves as a symbol of the next generation of protesters. At a rally, he expressed his view that the demonstrations were not about Putin nor were they about Navalny, but they were about changing the entire system across Russia.
With the elections in Russia one year away, it still remains uncertain as to what type of deal Putin will be making with the Russian people for his fourth, and some assume final, term. His boost in popularity due to the annexation of Crimea is beginning to vanish as the mass media sweeps it away. Russian intervention in Syria has also become an ineffective propaganda instrument.
Whilst the President, his advisors and spokespeople all do not have any rational defence against the anti-corruption platform of Navalny, this is unlikely to challenge Putin’s heavy influence on the electoral commissions, local politicians, and the court system at local to federal levels.
One thing is for certain, the authorities will have a difficult time handling Navalny; if he is incarcerated, he becomes a martyr but if they let him walk, he will organise further protests. Yet, in a hypothetical sense, if Putin was to discover a way to deal with Navalny, he would still need to confront a more serious dilemma: how long will this bureaucratic inertia keep him popular amongst the people? If it all collapses, which bargaining chip will he use next? He may be able to avoid answering these questions for the time being, but he will not be able to hold out forever.