How do you protest against a popular leader, who has the entire might of a powerful state apparatus behind him? In Russia, thousands took to the streets across 99 cities and towns over the weekend to protest the alleged corruption of the Putin regime. The current demonstrations are the first of this scale since 2011-12, when a burgeoning sentiment against the Kremlin spilled over in the wake of accusations of election fraud against the Putin dispensation. Led by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, demonstrators have thus far refrained from making President Vladimir Putin the focus of their ire, or being overly combative against security forces. Instead, they have adopted a path which will likely provide a better platform for next year’s presidential elections in Russia.
In Moscow, the demonstration took the form of a synchronised walk to circumvent the ban on unsanctioned stationary gatherings. The protests, while ostensibly against corruption, are an open and rare show of defiance against Putin. The placards and slogans have by and large focussed on the larger issue than making polarising arguments against their popular president — something Putin has used in the past to discredit his opponents as agents of foreign powers and subversive elements within Russia. Corruption is a theme that is both vague and powerful enough to have resonance across Russian society, including with Putin’s support base. In fact, many of the protesters have been waving the national flag in an attempt to make the ostensibly anti-corruption movement a nationalist cause. Thus far, Russian pride and patriotism are themes almost exclusively, and successfully, deployed by Putin.
The government’s response has also been far from ham-handed. While hundreds of demonstrators — including Navalny — have been arrested, security forces have not resorted to violent methods. Russia’s politics, for now, may be playing out on the streets. But it’s still a game of competing subtleties.