What Putin Should Do About Those Protests
New protests in Russia highlight a fundamental flaw in the regime of President Vladimir Putin: His grip on power relies far too much on the very corruption that is increasingly trying Russians’ patience. If he doesn’t find a way to address their grievances, it won’t end well for him or the country.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets Sunday in more than 80 cities across Russia, motivated by an investigation that opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation conducted into the affairs of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. In an online report and film (which has garnered more than 13 million views on YouTube), the foundation documented how Medvedev enjoys the use of more than $1 billion in luxury assets -- including yachts and residences in Russia and abroad -- paid for in part by prominent businesspeople who owe much of their success to the government’s good graces.
Although small in comparison to protests of election-rigging in 2011 and 2012, the turnout -- which included an abundance of young Russians -- serves as a loud rebuke of Putin’s oppressive approach to governance. For more than a decade, he has subverted the rule of law to enrich allies and punish opponents, an approach that has filtered down through the bureaucracy, crushing entrepreneurship and narrowing the options available to the upcoming generation. Stage-managed elections have maintained his control of the legislature, but left him increasingly disconnected from the people.
So what can Putin do? Sacrificing Medvedev, even if he were so inclined, would mean little if the broader system remained in place. The best response for the country -- genuinely prosecute corruption, strengthen property rights, hold free and fair elections -- is also the most unlikely, because it would require Putin to give up levers of power. But business as usual is even more dangerous: If enough Russians ultimately get fed up and see no way to achieve change, they may opt for revolution, an outcome that could lead to a regime even worse than Putin’s.
Russia’s next presidential elections, scheduled for 2018, offer Putin a chance to take a small step in the right direction. Navalny says he wants to work within the system and take part in the race, despite the Kremlin’s efforts to disqualify him and its control of the major media. Letting Navalny run would give Russians an escape valve for their dissatisfaction, bestow greater legitimacy on the winner and perhaps even generate some fresh ideas on how to address the country’s problems. If Putin believes his sky-high approval ratings, why should he be afraid of a little competition?
--Editors: Mark Whitehouse, Michael Newman
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