Police detained hundreds of protesters across Russia on Sunday, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, after thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against corruption and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Moscow has been the scene of multiple protests throughout Russia’s bitter winter. This in and of itself is nothing new: when the USSR fell, Russia’s new elites decided they would tolerate public opposition as a cost-saving measure. It had been ruinously expensive, not to mention impossible, to police every single political faction in the Soviet Union. The new Russian Federation has dialed back the police state, leaving small oppositional forces to protest ineffectively while Russian intelligence disrupts larger threats.
Putin still enjoys high approval ratings: 64%, according to Fom, a Russian pollster. These numbers have come down from his post-Crimea sky-high ratings, yet they prove that Putin remains, especially outside of Moscow, remarkably popular.
There is a presidential election in March 2018. As opposition forces seek credibility in the public eye, it makes sense for them to try to gain legitimacy against Putin by standing up to him.
It is hard to be a Russian opposition party in Putin’s Russia. Most Russians will recoil away from any politician who appears too cosy with the West, either in substance or form. Fighting Putin with demands for liberal democracy does not gain much traction in Russia.
But attacking Putin on corruption is exposing a key weakness of his regime. Ordinary Russians will rally to calls for cleaner government: it is, after all, what helped bring down the old Soviet Union. This is precisely what the opposition is focusing on: not the war in Ukraine, which is nowhere close to resolved, nor the risks and losses in Syria, but on the grating corruption of everyday life.
There is a problem here, however: most Russians presume one set of elites will plunder the country just as readily as the next. Russia’s opposition parties will have to do more to take down Putin than rail against corruption Russians see as inevitable.