Picture: Moscow Times. Young demonstrators call for democracy in the Russian capital on Sunday.
Across Russia yesterday, demonstrators took to the streets in opposition to Vladimir Putin and in support of boycotting the upcoming presidential elections in March. The rallies were called by Alexei Navalny, the politician widely regarded as Putin’s only significant political opponent. From Moscow to Vladivostok, thousands of Russian citizens, especially young people, braved police threats and frigid temperatures to make their voices heard.
The protests were conducted peacefully overall, with 257 arrests but no clashes with police reported across the country. This total is much lower than that of past demonstrations, and is especially impressive considering the general fervor with which police sought to adjourn the events. The most notable arrest was that of Navalny himself. He was forcefully detained immediately upon arrival at the Moscow rally, but urged supporters online to continue on without him. And in fact the protesters seemed completely undeterred by this detainment, with demonstrations in eastern Siberia having already taken place, and many in Moscow stating that they don’t support Navalny’s politics anyway.
Among that latter group are the liberal, globally-minded youth of Moscow. Their presence at the rallies was especially notable and highly charged. A 15-year-old girl, identified only as Nastia by the Moscow Times, said to reporters that “Putin has been president for longer than we’ve been alive. It’s time for a change.” Many of the adult protestors saw the youth not as harbingers of an election upset, but as a glimmer of hope in the more distant future. Their enthusiasm for engagement in civil society could be the greatest possible threat to the overwhelmingly unchallenged rule of Putin.
Navalny, however, presents a less compelling alternative to many of these same citizens. On the one hand, his attacks on the corruption in Moscow resonate widely with the people. He famously called Putin and his oligarchs a “party of crooks and thieves,” a label that more than half of Russians claimed to agree with in a 2013 poll. Navalny has dedicated much of his career to exposing the corruption and ulterior motives of the Russian political elite, and it is on this impetus that he campaigns. He advocates a free press, more spending on education and health, and taxing the oligarchs.
On the other hand, his nationalist views make critics extremely skeptical of his potential as an eventual leader. He has publicly used ethnic slurs, calling Georgians “rodents” while backing their expulsion from Russia. After demands that he apologize became too strong to ignore, the politician did release a statement (in Russian), but the public found it rude, patronizing, and completely insufficient. It is thus important to consider that his ascension to a position of power would inevitably bring along those views, and for many Russians dreaming of a better future, this stipulation is unacceptable. In any case, although he continues to lead the boycott of the March elections, Navalny is legally prohibited from running as a candidate for president.
Although yesterday’s protests were initially triggered by Navalny’s call, it became perfectly evident over the course of the day that the opposition had taken a form far beyond a gathering of his supporters. It was another early look at the budding movement for a free and democratic Russian society. So while it is practically guaranteed that Putin will win the March election and extend the term of his rule, it is equally evident, to those paying attention, that the storm of people power over Russia has begun to brew.