Recent nationwide anti-corruption rallies in Russia have increased hope among many observers for a glimmer of political change. This is especially true for those who embrace a strategy to counter Russia’s information war by empowering its civil society and to push it towards demanding political transformation. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny–who organized the June 12 demonstrations and has gained increased public recognition for his documentaries on state corruption–is often painted as Russia last, best hope.
A charismatic reformer, Navalny has proven to be capable of diversifying Russia’s political landscape, and, perhaps, offering an alternative to the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Upon a closer look, however, linking these protests and Navalny to an overall “awakening” of Russian civil society that demands regime change is misleading.
Failed rally in Moscow
Navalny’s choice of June 12th as the date to mobilize people against the establishment is no coincidence. On this very day – known as den’ Rossii (Russia Day) – back in 1990, under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, the Supreme Soviet of Russian Soviet Republic – the biggest of the republics of the Soviet Union – adopted a declaration of sovereignty on the principle of the separation of power. The message behind the date should have been pretty clear: inviting Russians to advocate for a new course of politics with all the premises and enthusiasm of the early ’90s.
Moscow’s rally was initially supposed to be held on Sakharov Prospekt but at the very last minute, Navalny chose to redirect the event to Tverskaya ulitsa – where people were celebrating Russia Day – maintaining that the government had pushed local companies not to provide the rallies with stage equipment. This last-minute switch of venue and competition with other Russia Day celebrations, turned out to be detrimental for the outcome of the protest. Navalny himself was arrested and condemned to 30 days of jail because of his unauthorized decision to move the rally, while almost 700 people were prevented to access Tverskaya.
As a result, the crowd that made it to Tverskaya was only partially interested in the protest. Overall the voice of the anti-corruption advocates was watered down as it was mixed with complaints against the construction work plans in Moscow and other grievances related to next September’s local elections in the city.
On the one hand, it is very difficult to assess to what extent people taking part in the rallies truly embraced the cause. However, the numerous arrests that took place not only in Moscow but also in other cities – 900 in Saint Petersburg and another 100 between Nizhny Tagil, Lipetsk, Tula, Tambov, Sochi, Kaliningrad and Vladivostok – shed light on the authorities’ concern and their intentions to prevent the protests from reaching a larger scale.
Navalny – no big deal
His charisma aside, many Russians simply do not trust Navalny. 63% respondents in a recent poll from Levada Center said that they would not vote for him in the next elections. The general complaint about him appears to be his perceived lack of convincing concrete ideas and limited general understanding of the current economic situation in Russia. Other detractors accuse him of failing to provide adequate evidence of former President Dmitry Medvedev’s corruption in his investigative documentary.
The phenomenon of Navalny’s appeal recalls some of the recent populist trends in other parts of the world. The young political base, extensive use of social networking, calls for a cleansing in the ruling elite and, naturally, the fight against corruption – all are hallmarks of recent populist campaigns. What is different, though, is the way these sentiments have taken root in Russian civil society, which is profoundly discouraged and perhaps has never believed that a single individual can trigger regime change. Previously, neither opposition leaders nor civil society activists have been very successful at mobilizing a society that seems largely apathetic or disillusioned. On the whole, attempts toward political transformation have been interpreted as wastes of time, because nothing can really change, and even the “so-called Western democracies” respond to the logic of power-politics. In this perspective, no single individual is as empowered as he or she claims to be.
Most Russians, in fact, remain uninterested in politics and do not want to be involved. One could make the argument that this attitude derives from policies preventing civil society to express its own views – the law on NGOs and the experience with the rallies, to give just a couple of examples.
Russians negative attitude towards political change finds its root in an historical tendency and especially in the fear of repeating the experience of troubled ‘90s. Even without restrictions to NGOs activities and street protests, Russians would not give too much credit to these activities because either they fear regime change or do not believe that average citizens could affect the overall management of the country in any way.
It is true that more Russians have expressed anger over state corruption in recent months. Data from Levada Center reveal quite a contradictory picture: on the one hand, 2/3 of Russians maintain that after Putin’s third term corruption has significantly increased, but on the other hand, 27% of respondents trust Putin’s anti-corruption plans, and, more significantly, 45% consider corruption as an endemic phenomenon that cannot be remedied.
Therefore, it is difficult to look at this sentiment and to the anti-corruption rallies as something that can lead to a change in Russia’s vertical of power on its own.
The Kremlin’s options
One can argue that sooner or later, the situation of Russian economy will deteriorate to a point that people will put more effort in advocating for political change. In fact, even though Russian economy is technically out of recession (+0.3% growth), consumer spending is still low because people are saving their money in anticipation of a repeated economic crisis, and the forecasts of economic growth as far as single households are concerned, are not positive at all.
Like all other voters, Russians are concerned with their own wellbeing. So far, the Kremlin has not told any dreamy, if dubious, stories about real economic recovery and prosperity in the future. So far, the narrative has been more about sacrificing for the sake of maintaining resistance towards an eager West that wants Russia in ruins. In fact – according to Levada Center – 61% Russians complain about the media coverage of local politics and issues, which is very little compared to the coverage of foreign policy (almost 70% of the news), and do not trust the news related to the economy.
For the time being, the rallying rhetoric of resisting sanctions and persisting through economic hardship in light of a confrontation with the West has once again proven effective and able to gather mass consensus. How long this mechanism can hold, nobody knows, especially because Russia is showing increasingly advanced techniques of manipulation of public opinion.
The Kremlin currently has two options to staunch a surge of societal awakening and opposition: confining Navalny and obstructing mass protests by accusing organizers of lawbreaking, or thinking about compromises. Compromise in this case could mean either insisting on enforcing anti-corruption laws – of which the de-offshorization law was one of the first attempts – and show the public that the Kremlin is listening to their claims, or offer Navalny a political post so that the Kremlin will keep him under control and manoeuver his moves.
If in the short run these protests do not represent any source of concern for Putin’s re-election, it is difficult to maintain much enthusiasm for their effectiveness over the long term. Due to Russians’ innate hesitancy to embrace to change, lots will depend on how the Kremlin responds to these movements and their claims. Likewise, the Russia leadership’s long-term survival will also depend on their ability to devise a path of economic development for all Russian citizens, whose own wellbeing they are most worried about.
Giovanna De Maio holds a PhD in International Studies from the University of Naples L’Orientale, Italy. During her PhD studies, she focused on the Ukraine conflict and Russian foreign policy. She held positions as a visiting researcher at the Center on Global Interests and the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. where she completed research on EU-Russia energy relations.