While 2017 has hardly hit the middle of the year mark, Russia has already witnessed two major waves of popular unrest sweeping over the country – something not seen since 2012 when nearly 100,000 people gathered in downtown Moscow right across Kremlin to protest President Putin’s third term. But this time around it’s different – it’s nationwide and the protest has a younger face.
First on March 26 and then on June 12 thousands of protesters took to the streets in hundreds of cities and towns across the country — from Moscow and Petersburg all the way to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. Judging by video footage and messages posted on social media it appears as though it were the teens who turned up in the biggest numbers in these protests. School and university students aged 14-25 were shouting anti-Putin slogans and dragged away in hundreds by the Russian police. Both demonstrations were called unlawful by the authorities who refused to provide an advance approval for the protests. It is to be noted that due to the rights to assembly enshrined in the Russian constitution, need for such an approval contradicts the Russia’s constitution, which only requires simple notification to the authorities by the organizers.
Demonstrations were sparked by an earlier documentary on YouTube showcasing expensive real estate properties accumulated by the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev over the recent years. The video was watched 12+ million viewers already. The film was made by an opposition group headed by Mr. Alexei Navalny, who has gained popularity for revealing multiple cases of corruption within the Russian top bureaucracy.
But with youth dissent and disillusion, which are certain to continue, Putin’s image as an undisputed national leader may experience some turbulence.
Mr. Navalny does not have a party or any structured political group behind him. He began his political activities a few years ago within a Russian nationalistic movement, but steered later to a more liberal position. Nevertheless, until recently he was seen by many from the liberal mainstream as an outsider willing to seize popular vote. But now that he got a big turnout of protesters all across the nation, Mr. Navalny has acquired the clout of a major opposition leader in Russia. What’s more important is that Mr. Navalny has been able to muster support of the young generation – something other opposition groups never managed to do. The youngsters have shown that unlike older generations of liberal protesters they are more dynamic, responsive, and eager for change. And they are ready to act in a less centralized manner – just a pre-fixed date, place, and hour was enough for them to show up, some with friends, many just alone.
The youth learnt about the coming events through the usual channels – social media like Facebook and VKontakte, a Russian version of Facebook. It was all in the open. It wasn’t a secret operation despite warnings from authorities not to show up.
The youngsters hoped there would be a reply from Kremlin to the documentary on Medvedev with some explanation – but there wasn’t any. The issue of corruption raised by Navalny apparently struck into the heart of many problems that the young Russians and their families encounter in everyday life. For instance, one of the protesters wrote in an Internet message that his parents are now receiving wages 1.5 times lower than a few years ago while they have to pay 1.5 times more for food in a local supermarket. The youth understand that they will not find the right job after school or college, if at all. Almost all of them are depressed that they do not see any comfortable future for themselves and their families.
Presidential elections are due to take place in March 2018. It will be fourth and seemingly last Presidential term for the 65-year-old Putin. With solid experience of influencing foreign elections, he is sure to win his own with a huge margin.
Kremlin seems to have been caught by surprise. For years it has been courting youth community to safeguard Putin’s legacy well into the future. The idea was to let a new generation to grow that would not remember any democracy and be proud to have seen Russia’s “Golden Age” associated with Putin. A series of pro-Putin youth movements were set up to promote the narrative of restored Russian power and pride, with a resurgent Russia defending justice and its values worldwide against a Western assault. Members of these movements used to stage patriotic shows on big occasions, chased opposition supporters calling them traitors or the Fifth Column, and harassed Western diplomats. A lot of money was spent on these projects.
Now much of those propaganda efforts seems to have been in vain. Faced with shrinking financial resources because of lower oil prices and Western sanctions, Kremlin abandoned many of its youth programs in hope that young people have become supportive of Vladimir Putin already. As we witnessed recently, much of the youth engagement turned out to work just the other way around.
It is clear that Kremlin has lost an important battle for the hearts and minds of the young. An improved economy could help Putin to restore the confidence of the youth, but for that Kremlin has to change drastically its domestic and foreign policies, reduce Kremlin’s involvement in the economy where 70% of the Russian economy is tied to the government, cut military expenditure which is at almost 5% of the Russian GDP, and stop wars in Ukraine and Syria. These are exactly the things that Putin doesn’t want to do since these would unravel his entire legacy.
The youth dissent springs up at a very inconvenient time for Mr. Putin. Presidential elections are due to take place in March 2018. It will be fourth and seemingly last Presidential term for the 65-year-old Putin. With solid experience of influencing foreign elections, he is sure to win his own with a huge margin. But with youth dissent and disillusion, which are certain to continue, Putin’s image as an undisputed national leader may experience some turbulence.