This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
If we consider their potential for long-term impact, Navalny's protests differ in many ways from previous protests in Russia.
Something unprecedented just happened in Russia. Tens of thousands of people, rallied by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, took to the streets to protest against corruption.
In Moscow, Navalny's supporters, undaunted by the authorities' refusal to sanction a rally, “took a walk” along Tverskaya Street towards the Kremlin, calling for an inquiry into his allegations that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had amassed vast wealth by corrupt means.
An investigation by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation claimed that the prime minister had used a network of charities to hide his control of extensive property and other assets. Those charities, it was alleged, had been funded by “donations” from some of Russia’s richest oligarchs.
An online film made by Navalny mocking Medvedev's private estates, wineries and duck ponds, struck a chord around the country and provided the impetus for Sunday’s protests, which were the largest since the anti-Kremlin demonstrations of 2011 and 2012.
Just as the disturbances in Bolotnaya Square in May 2012, which gave their name to the whole wave of protests, resulted in mass arrests, so too Sunday’s march in Moscow brought a sharp reaction from the authorities. Some 800 people were detained, including Navalny. Many were beaten and bloodied with truncheons.
Medvedev was nonplussed. Asked how the day went, he responded: “Not bad. I went skiing.”
The prime minister may not be able to maintain his habitual aloofness for long, however. Sunday's events could well represent a major shift for Russian civil society that not even Bolotnaya accomplished.
If we consider their potential for long-term impact, there are four ways these protests differ from previous protests in Russia:
Last weekend’s protests started in the regions – with rallies in 99 cities from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad – and culminated in Moscow. They broke a long tradition of social and regional atomisation among the opposition that plagued even Bolotnaya. Pre-2011, anti-Kremlin protests were common but largely confined to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Regional protests were focused more frequently on specific issues like labour or wage arrears rather than the regime's legitimacy. A spate of Bolotnaya-like protests occurred across Russian cities, but there was a clear sense that it was Moscow's cosmopolitan class leading the day, with all the social and regional divides that implied.
I will never forget the elderly women leaning out of their windows in Astrakhan in the spring of 2012, sizing up a demonstration of urban types and hipsters – led by Navalny and the Moscow socialite Ksenia Sobchak – and yelling at them to go home to the capital. The long-haul truckers' protests in the autumn of 2015 did start in the regions, but barely reached Moscow and petered out before they could make their mark. Unlike Sunday's demonstrations, they lacked the organisational drive provided by Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK by its Russian acronym) and its regional activists.
The protests demonstrated a level of organisation and networking unprecedented for the Russian opposition. Liberal parties like PARNAS have attempted regional campaigning in the past, but their latest efforts during the primaries in the spring of 2016 were fraught with internal rivalries and low turnout and support, often due to the fact their platforms, still focusing largely on vague ideas of democracy and human rights, failed to resonate with voters in the regions.
More importantly, Navalny's efforts rallied supporters proactively, rather than reactively. Previous demonstrations have responded to an injustice by the regime – Bolotnaya, for instance, was sparked by Putin's decision to return for a third presidential term and more specifically by rigged parliamentary elections. Navalny's FBK managed to rally efforts around something they – rather than the authorities – did themselves: their film about Medvedev's extravagant assets, and its investigation into high-level corruption in Russia. This was not about abstract ideals, however inspiring, but about a central, structural problem in Russian society that affects each and every citizen in tangible ways. The percentage of respondents naming corruption as their top concern has gone from 24 percent in 2009 to 39 percent in 2013; by contrast, those concerned with human rights have gone from two percent to four percent.
By demanding answers on corruption and an investigation into Medvedev’s apparently ill-gotten gains, the Navalny protests had a more realistic focus than previous protests demanding Putin’s removal, since both the prime minister and the president have vowed to fight corruption. In that respect, these rallies were more like regional demonstrations where locals demand specific concessions, and sometimes get them.
Of course, no one expects Putin's Kremlin to hold such an investigation, but there is an understanding – fed by years of speculation that Medvedev is on his way out – that it is, at least, in the realm of the possible. By contrast, the Bolotnaya protests tried to focus their agenda on free and fair elections, though it was implicit that they were really about preventing Putin’s return as president – something that was never going to be stopped. By focusing on corruption and not Putin, Navalny deftly avoided the trap of pitting 14 percent of the population that does not approve of Putin against the 86 percent that does. Sure, there were chants of “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a thief” on Sunday, and Navalny's anti-Putin stance is well-known, but that was not what the demonstrations were primarily about. If anything, they targeted Medvedev, whom for years now has been touted as on his way out, a sacrificial lamb for Russia’s floundering economy. As such, the protests accomplished something that hasn't really happened before in Russia's polarised political culture: they opened the door to a large cross-section of the Russian population that is increasingly concerned with corruption and income inequality, but prefers to remain loyal to Putin's government.
Navalny's demonstrations represent a growing awareness of corruption among the Russian population and a refusal to continue accepting it as standard practice. This could have significant repercussions down the line, if Navalny can continue to break down the fatalistic complacency in the minds of Russians that the state owns what it rules, and that corruption is an integral part of the state’s power. He has achieved this by making it possible to protest corruption without protesting Putin himself. He has made it possible to conceive of changes without overthrowing the regime. This is no small feat, and these demonstrations could well break the pattern of impotence that has characterised so many of Russia’s protests in the past.
That does not mean that we are necessarily looking at a Ukraine-style Maidan scenario, where swelling protests overthrow a government. Russian demonstrations, including those on Sunday, still lack political agency and depend, to a large extent, on how much they can provoke the authorities into doing something they will regret, so sparking internal turmoil within the Kremlin. An internal coup is still the likeliest prospect for regime change, but even that is still not probable at present.
Kremlin action – or inaction – will remain a determining factor in where the protests go from here. A crackdown, if it's too brutal, could galvanise demonstrators further – and Sunday’s brutality, when riot police were seen beating peaceful demonstrators with truncheons and with an unprecedented 1,500 people detained across the country, could well backfire for the authorities. And yet, the Kremlin also seems aware of this, which could well be why they only jailed Navalny for 15 days, at least for now. In the past, authorising anti-Kremlin demonstrations allowed the opposition to let off steam, while the protests eventually dwindled as the public got bored. But this is no longer just about the worn-out liberal agenda of past protests. The prospect of a robust street movement with massive region-wide reverberations raises the stakes in the Kremlin's dilemma of what to do with Navalny – let him run for president, don't let him run for president but keep him free, or jail him? Sunday's events show that the Kremlin's tried and trusted tactics for manipulating public discontent could yet fail.
It should be noted that Navalny is far from the kind of liberal Western-style democrat that outside observers have been looking for to save Russia from herself. Neither does he fit the mould of anti-establishment populist or progressive liberal. If he does, eventually, achieve some kind of office, he will likely become one with an illiberal, nationalist streak.
But by making this protest about corruption, Navalny is playing the long game, and he is playing it well. He harbours few illusions that the Kremlin would let him run, let alone win, but he appears to be weary of opposition figures running for office knowing they will lose. Instead, he is proving, step by step, that applying the law, uncovering graft, offering legal help to arrested supporters and organising on a local level to achieve specific results, can have an impact. That, for the first time, is lending Russian civil society traces of real leverage. Time will tell how that will be developed and applied.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.