Russia

Putin Should Fear a New Generation of Protesters

Young Russians have tended to be politically passive until Alexei Navalny sparked their anger.

Troubling demographics.

Photographer: Sergey Mihailicenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

At first sight, the Russian anti-corruption protests on Sunday didn't draw enough people to rock the Kremlin. And yet they must be extremely worrying for Russian President Vladimir Putin: The movement against him, which he had every reason to write off as dead, is attracting a new generation of Russians throughout the country.

Alexei Navalny, who plans to run for president next year, called on Russians to take to the streets on March 26 to protest the corruption of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, as described in a recent investigation by Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation. It accused Medvedev of amassing vast wealth, including palatial homes and a yacht, through a network of non-profit organizations run by his friends. The foundation produced a film detailing the story, which has been watched almost 13 million times on YouTube. The government dismissed the investigation as electioneering and didn't even attempt a substantive answer.

A project such as this didn't seem to Navalny's detractors to be enough of a reason for nationwide street action. They ridiculed Navalny's call on the social networks -- and were caught unawares as demonstrations took place in about 100 Russian cities. According to the Navalny team, some 150,000 people turned out across the country, up to 30,000 of them in Moscow. The police, of course, reported lower numbers -- just 8,000 demonstrators in Moscow. As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, putting the total number of protesters in the high tens of thousands.

That's not an impressive number. In late 2011 and early 2012, after a blatantly rigged parliamentary election, about as many, if not more, people repeatedly took to the streets in Moscow alone. But back then, there was a stronger reason for the action than one man's corruption investigation, and the rallies were officially permitted. Sunday's demonstrations in most cities, including Moscow, did not have official approval, making it highly likely that participants would be detained or even roughed up by police. Russians know from experience what could happen; after a particularly intense day of protest in May, 2012, seven people were convicted and sent to prison for up to four years. The anti-Putin movement died down after that, and the 2014 Crimea invasion, accompanied by an eruption of imperialist glee, appeared to finish it off.

Since none of Navalny's investigative work ever got any play on state television or in the majority of Russian media, all directly or indirectly under Kremlin control, Navalny has been searching for years for an alternative way to get information to his potential audience outside Moscow. At one point, when I still lived in Moscow, he invited me to discuss the production of a free tabloid newspaper meant for older voters nationwide. 

The slick Medvedev film shows how far the Moscow lawyer has come as a multimedia journalist. The film is expertly geared toward a young audience, striking a mischievous note as it describes Medvedev's passion for garish shirts and Nike sneakers, which he reportedly orders on Amazon through a proxy. Navalny's team has suggested that young protesters decorate trees and street lamps with sneakers in reference to the film, and they have done this throughout Russia. The video spread fast on the social network Vkontakte, preferred by young Russians to Western equivalents, and watchers -- many of them too young to vote -- organized to demonstrate on Sunday. Clearly, Navalny has succeeded in bypassing the media to reach those who have never had much use for TV, newspapers or even news sites. Now, he's on the kids' radars, along with other YouTube personalities with less politicized messages.

The demographics of Sunday's protests were the biggest surprise. Young Russian have always been politically passive. It could be expected, however, that at some point Putin's efforts to turn the country backward toward a version of the state-dominated Soviet system would irritate them because it would become hard for them to imagine a future in Putin's hybrid of crony and state capitalism. As Yekaterina Vinokurova wrote on Znak.com on Monday, referencing some members of Putin's inner circle:

There will be no justice for them and no social elevators. The kids of the elite have long since picked up all the crumbs, and the grandkids of the elite have already opened their greedy beaks wide. You can become an engineer at a factory but the factory will be run by a friend of a friend of the son of a Timchenko, Kovalchuk or Rotenberg.

In the 2000s, the Kremlin generously financed pro-Putin youth organizations that were supposed to create "social elevators" for young people loyal to Putin, giving them visibility, access to training and financial resources. Nashi, or Our People, was the best known of the groups. In 2012, however, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin official responsible for setting up these organizations, fell out of favor with Putin because he'd failed to prevent the mass protests. He was moved to a job in the cabinet and stripped of responsibility for shaping the political landscape. Nashi ceased to exist almost immediately, and no project of that magnitude emerged out of its ruins. Evidently, Surkov's successors didn't consider it important to target the young: It was enough for them to control television and make sure no protest leader could operate freely. Sunday showed that was a major mistake on their part: Now, they're forced to play catch-up in a game Navalny can play better. The under-20 generation's heroes are now more likely to be opposition activists than loyalists.

The Kremlin's instinctive response has been to crack down. At least 1,030 people were detained in Moscow alone on Sunday. Among them was Moscow Conservatory student Daniil Pilchen, who had just become a social media celebrity for mocking a list of regime enemies a professor had ordered him to read aloud. The few veterans of the 2011 protests who were also picked up reported there was no one over the age of 20 on the police buses with them.

Most of the detainees, including Pilchen, had been released by Monday morning without any legal consequences. Navalny himself, also detained at the demonstration, was sentenced to a $300 fine and 15 days' detention for disobeying police. He's been there before; he'll get out a more dangerous man for the Kremlin than he'd been before last weekend. And Putin's men haven't figured yet what they were going to do about the changed situation. That's clear from their confused, off-key reactions.

On Sunday, a protester sarcastically asked Medvedev on Instagram how his day was going. "Not bad, I did some skiing," Medvedev replied, adding a smiley face emoticon.

Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov on Monday accused Navalny of "consciously deceiving minors, essentially children" by tempting them with "certain rewards" to take part in an unsanctioned protest. He apparently meant Navalny's promise to get anyone detained at the rallies compensation through the European Court for Human Rights. But it should be clear even to Peskov that the protesters weren't lured by any promised reward -- they were clearly angry with what they'd seen in Navalny's film, and with the joyless reality around them.

The Kremlin will be tempted to respond to the new challenge with repression. It will have to tread carefully, though. The revolution of 2013 and 2014 in Kiev began after President Viktor Yanukovych's regime unleashed brute force on a peaceful student demonstration. Hundreds of thousands of Kievans responded by taking to the street and holding the city center for months before Yanukovych was forced to flee. In Russia on Sunday, the detentions involved little rough action, so such a response is not yet warranted. That, however, can change any day.

Putin's administration will probably try to revive its youth program and attempt to subvert the nascent student movement. It needs to rule out eruptions of protest before the 2018 election. That won't be easy, and even if Navalny's presidential bid is doomed, there are reasons for Putin and his people to fear, if not for their own future, then for that of their heirs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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