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Russians are protesting! Part 5: Now the opposition is setting the agenda.

- March 31, 2017
A woman holds up a yellow duck toy during protests Sunday in downtown Moscow. The protests focused on accusations that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has amassed a collection of mansions, yachts and vineyards. The alleged luxuries include a house for raising ducks, so many placards in Sunday’s protests featured mocking images of yellow duck toys. (Andrew Lubimov/Associated Press)

Symposium introduction: On Sunday, March 26, the unexpected happened in Russia. Across the country, coordinated anti-corruption protests drew tens of thousands of people. Ostensibly these were not directed not at President Putin (although as you’ll see below, opinions differ.) Rather, opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for the protests in a video released online accusing Prime Minister (and former president) Dmitry Medvedev of a spectacular, and corrupt, accumulation of wealth, demanding an investigation. Protests struck dozens of cities, widely dispersed, led not just by pensioners but also young people.

To understand these surprising protests, I asked experts on Russian politics from PONARS Eurasia to join an online symposium, answering:

Do the protests that took place across 99 cities in Russia last Sunday signify a meaningful change in Russian politics is likely? Why or why not?

For this post, the fifth in the symposium, we hear from Dinissa Duvanova, associate professor of international relations at Lehigh University. 

— Joshua Tucker

In evaluating the effect of the current protests, it is important to remember that there has been protest in Putin’s Russia previously. In 2011-2012, hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest the rigged legislative elections. In 2015, about 20,000 marched through Moscow to protest the killing of Russian opposition leader.

In both cases, the Putin regime proved largely resilient to these outbursts of public discontent. The question is: Will the most recent protests be any different? One important difference is that for the first time since Putin took office, the opposition appears to be driving the protest agenda.

Sunday’s protests did not emerge out of nowhere. Instead, on March 2, the Anti-Corruption Foundation — headed by the well-known blogger and opposition politician Alexey Navalny — released a sensational documentary exposing top-level corruption schemes. The report documented the illicit enrichment, flamboyant lifestyle and multitudes of luxurious real estate possessions of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Last week Navalny toured Russian provinces promoting the scandalous documentary and bringing attention to the kleptocratic nature of Russia’ ruling elite.

The anti-corruption message is likely to resonate well with the Russian public. Transparency International consistently ranks the country at the bottom 25 percent of the world in perception of corruption.

To that Navalny added a powerful social justice appeal: While the Russian economy struggles with declining oil revenue and economic sanctions, the country’s elites plunder the state to satisfy their ever-growing appetite for luxury.

This signifies an important change in tactics for the Russian opposition. Instead of trying to block particular political moves by the Kremlin that largely remain opaque for an average Russian, the current mobilization effort revolves around issues that can resonate with many Russians’ everyday experiences. This week the opposition took people to the streets as part of its offensive on the corrupt regime, not as a desperate attempt to show disagreement with particular political development.

This proactive role of the opposition sets current protests apart from the previous episodes of popular mobilization, demonstrating that Kremlin is not the sole political force in Russia. This in itself constitutes a meaningful change in Russian politics.

This post is the fifth in the symposium. Here you can find the first, second, third, fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth