Corruption, Terrorism, and Russia’s Future
Recent incidents in Russia resemble a speeding roller coaster. It is a story of political ups and downs, unexpected turns of events, and conflicting narratives.
With mass anti-corruption demonstrations in Moscow and other Russian cities on March 26, followed by a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg on April 3, Kremlin elites are growing nervous.
Opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, now imprisoned, sparked a wave of public protest when his foundation uncovered a web of criminality and corruption encircling Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev’s hidden wealth, which includes lavish properties, yachts, and wineries, makes him one of the richest people in Russia.
According to polls conducted by the independent Levada Center, nearly 80 percent of Russians believe that both the federal as well as central authorities are thoroughly corrupt. Experts have always believed that corruption is deeply embedded in the Russian political system.
But given its scale, corruption today seems to be more the system itself, not just one of its core elements.
Russian citizens usually adopt a “This is just how it is” attitude. This time, however, they reacted spontaneously. Inspired by Navalny they took their disappointment to the street. Thousands protested peacefully throughout the entirety of Russia. Many demonstrators were detained. Some, after a brief prosecution, were sentenced to prison. The head of the anti-corruption movement, Aleksey Navalny, is serving a 15-day sentence for agitating illegal rallies.
There has been one feature that distinguishes the March events from the last 2011 outcry against the rigged parliamentary elections – the engagement of the Putin generation.
Political consciousness of young people under 18, for whom domestic politics has always been associated with President Vladimir Putin, is slowly awakening.
Anti-corruption slogans have constituted only a part of their demands. They struggle for increasingly limited social and urban space and the right to freely express oneself. For Russian youth the everyday reality does not match the pro-government propaganda broadcast by tightly controlled media. State communication channels have developed a narrative of Russia as a besieged fortress. And one of the ways to protect the fortress is to make sure everyone toes the line internally.
As the Russian economy is going through serious disturbances, the lack of foreign investments is increasingly problematic and the promised high-tech revolution bears no fruit, the Kremlin desperately looks for a theme that could serve to distract the public. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and the ongoing confrontation with the West, as recently outlined by a Russian sociologist Denis Volkov in an article for RBK daily, no longer serve that purpose. In the vacuum that has emerged, anti-corruption actions, which resonate well with the people, have become a political springboard for Navalny.
At first an official reaction to the protest was limited to a prolonged silence on behalf of the Kremlin. Only after three days since the demonstrations have taken place, the authorities recognized them. Until then state TV channels have not run a single report covering the events.
However, it would be naïve to think that there will be an investigation concerning Prime Minister Medvedev’s circle. Medvedev himself comments on Navalny’s work reluctantly. His press secretary Natalya Timakova said it senseless to react to the corruption accusations due to the lack of credible evidence. Prime Minister’s political protector Vladimir Putin has (as of yet) no reasons to question Medvedev’s loyalty. The status quo will be maintained and no one will be held responsible.
Civil cold war
Some Russian analysts believe that a new civil cold war in Russia has broken out. This is a rather premature interpretation as the protesters are not in any way an institutionalized grouping. Also President Putin’s grasp on power is as firm as ever. For nearly two decades he has positioned himself as the only guarantor of stability and peace. His authority has never been questioned.
The recent terrorist attack in Petersburg changes the political dynamics in Russia. Vladimir Putin can now carry out a counter-assault directed both at radicals as well as internal opposition.
The 1999 bombings in Russia and the Second Chechen War they led to enabled Putin to consolidate power in the run-up to the presidential elections the following year. The March 2017 demonstrations and the metro attack in Petersburg that followed will serve a similar purpose. Putin will capitalize on the fear of people and he will project the image of the only one that could curb those who want to destabilize the domestic situation in Russia.
What to expect from the Russian authorities in the short-term perspective? Both incidents might lead to the implementation of even more severe restrictions on the freedom of internet in Russia. When it comes to non-parliament opposition it could also experience another wave of sanctions including administrative impediments and controls.
President Vladimir Putin has said on many occasions, quoting Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, that for insight on Russia one should not use a brain. In Russia one can only believe. Such an approach invites citizens’ passiveness and the conviction that no change is possible and the authorities have the monopoly on truth.
A marked transformation of Russia is however feasible. Historically, it required an extraordinary individual like Peter the Great to shape the foundations of the nation and move the country forward. Today, this role could be played by young civil, urban, and cultural activists, who deserve Western moral support.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.