On March 26, 2017, there were mass protests all over Russia in response to the publication of information regarding the estates and property owned by Dmitry Medvedev, the current prime minister of Russia. The details of these properties were published on the blog of Alexei Navalny, the current leader of the opposition in Russia, who suggested that this information implied that Medvedev’s income exceeds his official salary, pointing to corruption within the Russian government. The protests resulted in the arrest of Navalny, and in the detainment of several hundred people involved in the protests.
The protests were the largest expression of public discontent since the 2011-2012 protests about potential vote-rigging in the Kremlin – particularly notable was the presence of many young people and even schoolchildren, who, despite being raised in the environment of Putin-worshipping patriotism, displayed discontent with their current leader and the current system. Protesters took to the streets in more than 80 cities, with an estimated 7,000 protestors on the streets of Moscow. This massive display of protest, in spite of strict Russian anti-protest laws and direct orders from the police to stay off the streets, illustrates the strong anti-corruption feeling among the Russian people.
The protests were sparked by a lengthy video posted by Navalny, in which he accused Medvedev of corrupt practices, pointing out that his estates and properties exceed that which he should be able to afford on his official salary. The video has been viewed around 13 million times on Youtube, perhaps pointing to the reason for the presence of so many young people at the protests. Navalny has tapped into social media in order to communicate his opposition to the Russian government, and expose the issues therein, thus garnering him support in the younger generations.
In contrast to Navalny’s widely viewed video, the protests were ignored by all main Russian TV channels. This was evidently a calculated move by the Russian media, and such arguably dishonest and deliberate omissions are only more likely to influence young Russian people to turn to the internet for wider coverage and reporting. As leader of the opposition, Navalny’s main prerogative is exposing the corruption within the current Russian government, and social media gives him a platform to do so, with its appeal likely only broadening as the Russian media attempts to shut down and ignore both Navalny himself and that which he aims to expose.
As a result of the protest, Navalny has been sentenced to 15 days in prison for disobeying police orders and organising the protests. He used the trial as a further platform for his cause, tweeting a picture of himself with the caption “The time will come when we will have them on trial (but honestly).” Even without the media coverage in Russia, the high numbers of protestors will have been noted by the Kremlin, and will surely be a cause for concern. The fact that so many protestors took to the streets despite Russia’s strict anti-protest laws and the anti-corruption platform upon which Navalny is running may cause the Kremlin to re-evaluate their standard response to accusations of high-level corruption, which is denial, and perhaps lead to the introduction of some measures to display a visible stance against corruption.
Prior to Navalny’s accusations, Medvedev was viewed as one of the more liberal members of Putin’s inner circle, seeming like a regular guy, if occasionally awkward in the public eye. Yet some of his flippant remarks take on a more unsavoury tone if Navalny’s accusations of his corruption hold any truth. When asked by a teacher about the low teaching salaries, he suggested that if money is what teachers were after, they should have gone into business instead. With the new corruption charges, this seems less like a joking comment and more a reflection on the unscrupulous state of the Russian government. The strong response of the public in engaging in these protests demonstrates a wave of both anti-corruption and, arguably, anti-Putin feeling in Russia – while corruption has always been an issue domestically, it has significantly worsened since Putin began his second term as president in 2004, and has not improved in recent years, with Russia now ranked 131 out of 176 countries in the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. It’s easy to see why people came out in force against these corruption charges, even in spite of Russia’s strict anti-protest laws.
These strict protest laws themselves point to a country in which any disagreement with the status quo is stifled. A peaceful gathering without the permission of the authorities is punishable by a fine or up to 15 days’ detention, and repeat offenders are subjected to much harsher sentences, including up to five years in prison (three for single-person protests). This severely limits the freedom of assembly granted in the 1993 Russian Constitution, and provides a stark contrast to freedom of speech and the right to protest which we take for granted in the West. One of the most extreme examples of this is the 100-year ban enacted on Moscow Pride by courts in 2012. Issues with gay rights in Russia are well reported on, but this serves to further emphasise the limit on any kind of protest or dissent against the government in Russia, and highlights the wave of strong feeling against corruption embodied in the protests which took place despite these restrictions. The Russian people are sick of their voices not being heard and their resources being exploited by the government. Perhaps the Kremlin will finally take notice.