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Growing anti-corruption movement in Russia

On Monday, mass protests broke out throughout Russia, even in rural villages and towns in far-flung Siberia. Organized by opposition activist Alexy Navalny, the protests were timed to coincide with “Russia Day,” and carried a message to the Kremlin that a new generation of Russians will not stand by as naked corruption in government bodies becomes the norm.

The government arrested Navalny (a frequent occurrence at this point), tried to quell many of the protests and banned coverage of them on state television. But the movement he has inspired has clearly made inroads with many ordinary Russians. 

“All politics is local,” so goes the famous American maxim. Amid rapid globalization, the maxim rings true for political systems worldwide. In Russia, Navalny has adroitly channelled the simple yet effective strategy of building grassroots support centered around the powerful message of standing up to corruption.

Whether it is local corruption or the vastly more complex and wildly exorbitant corruption of President Vladimir Putin’s cronies in the Kremlin, Navalny and his small band of staff have succeeded in capturing the imagination of thousands to take their message to the streets.

Simply put, among many ordinary Russians there is palpable frustration with the Kremlin’s corrupt status quo of wanton impunity. That frustration was on full display on Monday as thousands heeded Navalny’s call to march into Red Square in central Moscow.

He was immediately rounded up by the authorities and many protesters were roughed up. More than 1,000 were detained. Clearly, Putin and his henchmen have found something to fear, not with Navalny himself, but with the idea and message he represents, which seems to be gaining traction among Russians.

Putin and loyalist state-controlled media have tried to paint Navalny and his supporters as Western-backed CIA stooges. That has done little to dilute the resonance of Navalny’s message and call for rampant Kremlin corruption to be investigated and halted.

Russia’s economy is stagnating; millions of its people have lost hope, and are no longer willing to accept extortion by politicians who abuse their positions to enrich themselves and their cronies.

Oubai Shahbandar

Millions have viewed a slick YouTube video produced and narrated by Navalny, detailing Prime Minister (and staunch Putin loyalist) Dmitry Medvedev’s exceptionally lavish and ill-gotten lifestyle, with undeclared houses and vineyards in Italy’s Tuscan countryside.

Russia’s economy is stagnating; millions of its people have lost hope, and are no longer willing to accept extortion by politicians who abuse their positions to enrich themselves and their cronies.

Russians were enraged by the ludicrous lengths Medvedev went to in amassing his fortune, which reportedly includes keeping a house just to raise ducks — a point many protesters mocked by displaying placards with yellow duck toys. In defying Putin’s ban on demonstrating, protesters and Navalny sent a powerful signal to the ruling elite: They will not be silenced so easily.

That is what makes Navalny such a threat to Putin, because no matter how many times he and his colleagues are jailed, arrested or fined, the anti-corruption movement undoubtedly has real momentum. Does this mean Putin will be unseated in the next election? It is unlikely for various reasons. But efforts to bar Navalny from running for president have not dampened his enthusiasm or that of his followers.

Putin would do well to heed the lessons of the Arab Spring: Mass demonstrations calling for reform (not revolution) can rapidly change if local grievances and malign corruption are not properly addressed. Unresponsive governance is the fodder for revolutionary fervor. Putin may well be miscalculating in his overconfidence that by promising Russians a semblance of stability, they will be willing to overlook gross malfeasance in governance.

Russia’s social, political and economic environment in 2017 is a long way from what it was in 2000. If Putin is banking on Russians’ political stupor to continue running the state as a mafia enterprise, he may be in for a rude awakening. More and more are questioning the monopoly of the corrupt elite, and more and more are daring to speak about the folly of Russia’s invasion of Syria.

In a recent interview with Voice of America’s Russian service, Navalny addressed the issue of a political awakening. “For public consumption, they always talk about… the Russophobia of the West, but the main Russophobes in Russia are the ruling elites, who consider the Russian people brutes and rubes who don’t understand anything, don’t know anything and will always remain silent,” he said. “They believe that it is… a country of people doomed to live in poverty because they are too dumb to protest.”

Tens of thousands may have showed up in central Moscow and other cities this time, but millions more are watching from the sidelines. History always seems to catch up with those who refuse to learn from its lessons. One cannot but admire the David vs. Goliath struggle that Navalny is daringly undertaking.

• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.