Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny announced another nation-wide anti-corruption protest rally for June 12th 2017. The timing is tricky and designed to box the authorities into a corner. June 12th is widely celebrated as Russia Day with public events and ceremonies throughout the country. On the one hand, it would be more than awkward for the Russian authorities to prevent unsanctioned anti-corruption rallies amidst the Russia Day celebrations. And on the other hand, it would create a possibility for Navalny to convert the events into a massive anti-corruption rally. Therefore, June 12th will be a major defining point in the further behaviour of the Kremlin.
In the meantime, it is worthy to explore what has led to the announcement of the June protest. The announcement came following his release from a 15-day administrative arrest after the March 26 anti-corruption protests. More than 1,500 protestors, including Navalny himself, were detained by police. Ahead of the rallies, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation released a film alleging mass corruption in the Russian government. The film primarily targeted Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and widely resonated among Russian viewers.
Pro-Kremlin TV channels, news agencies, media outlets and propaganda figureheads ignored the mass protests that were taking place throughout Russia including in major cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg. The silence was a sign of the Kremlin’s benumbing more due to the active participation of Russia’s millennials than the protests themselves.
Millennials were a major force in the unsanctioned rallies in defiance to the government and quite a few post-millennials, or teenagers, were also present. Although a few thousand demonstrators may not be a big deal for city with several million like Moscow, the activeness of the millennials still creates new challenges for the Kremlin in several ways.
Clash of generations or YouTube vs TV
The millennials’ active involvement in the protests epitomises the younger Russian generation to be more unmanageable for the Kremlin. Unlike their parents, who grew up in the Soviet Union and have gone through the chaos of the 1990s often feeling nostalgic about the Soviet past, millennials have seen almost nothing other than Putin-led power in their adult life. Basically, this can be viewed as a sign of a clash of generations, between one much affiliated with the Soviet past and the other one that has little to do with that past and looks to the future.
This also indicates that the massive Russian propaganda machine including major TV channels, news agencies and other media outlets have failed to foster manageable generations. The millennials and post-millennials are sometimes referred to as Russia’s YouTube generation. Navalny appeals to Russians mainly through YouTube and other social media. The Russian youth’s positive response to his YouTube appeal is a great challenge for the Kremlin media and propaganda policies as well.
The Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported on April 19th that the Russian authorities had allegedly developed a draft law to ban information systems and programmes in Russia which allow access to blocked contents. Another government response to Navalny was a production and YouTube publication of a video titled Navalny 2018 Hitler 1945 We Can Repeat.
On the same day, Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the communist party, nebulously mentioned that a “new Führer” has appeared. He alsosaid that“if you look at the public mood, some live on the internet, others on TV, and the reality is aimed at destabilising what is going on”.
The Russian minister of culture, Vladimir Medincky, was then interviewed on April 21st by one of the top ten Russian-language YouTube video bloggers Sasha Spilberg. This is another sign of YouTube’s popularity in Russia. Mednicky acknowledged that his children spend a lot of time on the computer and internet. Paradoxically, this interview was aimed at deterring Russian youth from anti-government protests, according to another top ten Russian video blogger known as Kamikadzedead. But it is a tall order for the government to control the internet and social media.
Russian opposition lacks charismatic and appealing leaders
One of the lessons of the March 26th protests is that the Russian opposition is weak more due to a lack of charismatic and appealing leaders than a lack of popular support. Therefore, Russian opposition parties utterly need renewal and fresh blood.
Navalny, who is rather an anti-corruption activist than a politician, succeeded in getting thousands of people to rally in more than 90 cities while non-parliament opposition parties, such as Yabloko, refused to join the protests. Those opposition parties have lost elections continuously. But most, if not all, of their leaders has never resigned in acknowledgement of defeat. Hence, the opposition parties similarly to the Kremlin have seen no democratic leadership change. Neither the opposition parties such as the Communist Party, Liberal Democrat Party and Just Russia Party, which are represented in the parliament and constitute part of the Putin consensus, have seen leadership changes despite constant defeats in elections.
Opposition figures such as Grigory Yavlinsky have long become politically exhausted, but do not retreat from political life. The recent protests showed that the opposition parties are in fact politically disabled which is why they continuously fail.
Moscow’s politics of fear may become ineffective
The incumbent Russian leadership which has been almost the same for the last 17 years refuses to investigate allegations of corruption. Instead, it expectedly resorts to the politics of fear. Vladimir Putin compared the anti-corruption protests to the Arab Spring and Ukraine’s EuroMaidan.
In a response to a question from Communist MP Nikolai Kolomeitsev, Medvedev, who is the main figure in the corruption scandal, said to the parliament that he “will not comment on the false products of political rascals and the Communist Party must also refrain from doing the same”. Chairman of the Russian parliament Vyacheslav Volodin threateningly added: “The country had already suffered from that once. First of all, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union did. So, inferences need to be made.”
While older generations may be more prone to the politics of fear, younger generations are becoming increasingly fatigued by Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere. Yet they are infuriated by the luxurious lifestyles of Russian officials and their families. Yet, declining energy prices have been negatively affecting the living standards of ordinary citizens and the international sanctions imposed following the annexation of Crimea are biting.
According to the latest independent Levada Centre poll, 55 per cent of respondents have not approved the Russian government’s spending of state funds to the development of Crimea whereas social expenses are reduced. Yet 51 per cent of Russians have become tired of expecting any positive changes from Putin while 14 per cent found it difficult to answer. These may be the first signs that the Kremlin’s politics of fear are becoming ineffective.
After two world wars, Russians lived under in a closed society. After the death of Joseph Stalin, there was a kind of opening and interaction and contacts with the outer world increased. The Soviet people started seeing that people in Europe, North America and elsewhere lived better-off and enjoyed more freedoms and rights. This was one of the domestic reasons that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It took many decades for this to happen though. Now in an age of high information technologies and social media, it is very easy to be aware of what is happening inside and outside one’s country.
Younger generations such as the millennials and post-millennials are at the forefront of social media. As time goes on, this generation will constitute the majority of the Russian population. Then, the majority of Russians may question, if not defy, the status quo determined by the occupiers of the Kremlin and the Moscow establishment.
Rahim Rahimov is a Baku-based independent political analyst focusing on Russia, the post-Soviet space and political Islam. Rahimov holds an MA in International Relations from the Hult International Business School, London, UK, and a BA in Arab Studies from Baku State University.