Sunday’s Protests: Russia Is Back

Massive anti-corruption protests on March 26th have effectively ended the sleepy landscape of the Russian politics that have existed for the past three years since the annexation of Crimea, a period dominated by the notion of “unchallengeable” sky-high approval ratings of Putin. The country is visibly fed up with Putin’s cronyism, obscene corruption and inequality, which were the prime targets of the protests.

There are a few remarkable things about Sunday’s rallies. First, about 100 cities were affected, including such names as Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Saransk, Novokuznetsk, Nizhny Tagil – provincial towns which are normally unheard of in regular Russian political life. In regional capitals, up to several thousand were attending, setting records of participation in many cases. Second, this is the first time when most of such rallies were forbidden by authorities – but people turned out regardless. Beforehand, opposition was only able to mobilize big masses of protesters on the condition that rallies were officially approved; non-sanctioned rallies normally scared off most people and were down to a narrow number of dedicated oppositioners.

 This time, it was all different – people across the country have shown no fear despite arrests and heavy police pressure. This is a sharp contrast with anything we’ve seen before. There are clear signs that people in Russia are fed up with the rule of the same faces who have been in power for almost two decades now for the benefit of enriching themselves. Dominating young faces also suggest that the younger generation sees no opportunity for a decent future within Putin’s system, which largely provides benefits and social lifts to insiders, and excludes everyone else.

You can get a glimpse of people’s resolve to stand against pressure in my short video which I’ve captured right at the heart of the events at Pushkinskaya square in Moscow on Sunday – people chanting “Russia against Putin”. All right, I could have been wrong predicting last year that you may see such mass demonstrations of discontent with Putin’s regime at the September 2016 Parliamentary elections – but in fact this demonstration turned out just to be delayed for six more months. Elderly opposition figures at the Duma elections failed to impress Russians who want change, but a younger and much more energetic Alexey Navalny have finally managed to ignite people. Navalny has been remarkably successful in finding a common cause and building a wide network of support across the country and his regional visits gather huge crowds of supporters, something also unseen in many years, as a lot of opposition forces were, unfortunately, too Moscow-centric.

Together with Navalny’s ongoing Presidential campaign, further rallies like that would build more and more pressure against Putin and his regime in the coming months. Arrests won’t stop the momentum. The resolve of protesters on Sunday is a stark contrast with passiveness and fatigue of bleak pro-Putin demonstrations marking the anniversary of the Crimean demonstration just a week before. On March 26th, no one ever showed up on the streets in Putin’s defence, except heavily armed police and troops — supposedly existent “armies” of Putin’s diehard fans are nowhere to be seen. It seems that the tale of “universal 90% support for Putin in Russia” has effectively ended right in front of our eyes.

Mass arrests and exceptional armed police defence, however, clearly suggest that Putin doesn’t want to easily let go. But for the first time, this was confronted by real mass resolve to protest despite personal risks, and current pressure, arrests and insane accusations against protesters on state TV which only make people angrier. The bad news is that serious confrontation sometime in the future seems inevitable, as protest rallies have only just begun and Russians are passionate to turn to the streets once again. Youth forums are now filled with anger, particularly after Putin’s spokesman’s remarks that youngsters who attended rallies were “paid” to protest. It is very likely that things may turn violent soon if Putin doesn’t back down with his repression machine.

The good news is that Russia is back: our people have remembered who they really are, and demanded freedom and respect of their rights with energy previously unseen. Sunday was really a turning point.