What Russia's Latest Protests Mean for Putin

After the largest demonstrations in years erupted across the country on Sunday, the Kremlin is fighting back.

 

 

MOSCOW— It’s not a rare sight in this city to see tens of thousands of people pour into the streets to express their opposition to the government that makes its home here. Moscow was the epicenter of the massive pro-democracy protests of 2011-2012, and many others since, including rallies to commemorate slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. This is the city where Vladimir Putin lives, along with the tens of thousands of people who make his machine of state hum. But given its wealth and cosmopolitanism, Moscow is also the most oppositional city in Russia. In 2013, it nearly forced the Kremlin-installed mayor into a run-off with a charismatic young opposition leader, Alexey Navalny. So in some ways, it was not surprising to see thousands heed his call to come out and protest here on Sunday.

 

But Sunday’s protest was different. Unlike the rallies in Nemtsov’s memory or even the 2011-2012 protests, this one did not have a permit from the Moscow city authorities. Over the weekend, the mayor’s office warned people that protestors alone would bear the responsibility for any consequences of attending what they deemed an illegal demonstration. But despite those warnings and despite the fresh memory of some three dozen people being charged—many of whom did prison time—for a protest in May 2012 that turned violent, thousands came out in Moscow. The police estimated attendance at 8,000, but given officials’ predilection for artificially deflating the numbers of those gathered at such events to make them seem less of a threat, the number could easily have been double that. People clogged the length of Tverskaya Street, one of the city’s main drags. The iconic Pushkin Square was packed, and people clung to the lampposts, chanting “Russia will be free!”

 

Three weeks ago, Navalny, who became famous as an anti-corruption blogger, posted an hour-long video exposé (with English subtitles) on his blog and YouTube channel. It showed, in great detail and using drone footage, what he said were the vast real-estate holdings of prime minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev, a man who talked of fighting corruption during his presidency and who in May told the residents of recently annexed Crimea, who are suffering from electricity and fuel shortages, “We don’t have the money now. ... But you hang in there!” The money, Navalny alleged, was all bundled up in palaces, some costing hundreds of millions of dollars, all over the country. It was strange to attack Medvedev, now a widely ridiculed has-been in Russian politics, and many doubted that Navalny telling people to go out and protest Medvedev would have any resonance. And yet, when he named the day—March 26—people across 11 time zones answered his call and came out.

 

What was most remarkable, though, was that the protests happened not just in protest-loving Moscow, but in over 90 cities across the country. People came out by the hundreds in Vladivostok, in the Far East; in Siberian Tomsk; in Krasnodar, in the south; and in Kaliningrad, a tiny Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania. They came out in cities like Chelyabinsk, in the Ural Mountains; southern Samara; and in Novosibirsk. (Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet, has a compelling photo essay here.) This is significant because “the regions,” as everything outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg is known, are significantly more conservative and Putin-friendly than the two biggest cities. They are much poorer, much less developed, and people living there are often more dependent on the state to make their living. There is almost no independent media there, except what can be found online, and information critical of the government can be hard to come by. Going against the authorities can result in serious repercussions, both economically and in terms of personal safety, sometimes more so than in Moscow, where people have more money, political connections, and the savviness to solve their problems.

 

The fact that thousands and thousands in areas outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg came out despite this tremendous risk, to participate in rallies that were, with few exceptions, not permitted by the authorities, means a few things, and none of them are good for Putin.

 

Read more from the source article published in the Atlantic on Mar. 27 2017.

 

 

 

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