There will be more demonstrations this weekend in Russia, following protests last week that were the largest in five years. As details emerge about the demonstrations and their organizers, a new picture of Russian discontent is materializing. Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin is choosing to respond with crackdowns rather than by addressing the underlying issues causing the dissent.
Last weekend's protests were organized by opposition heavyweight Alexei Navalny, who traveled through half a dozen Russian cities to promote his anti-corruption campaigns against Kremlin elites. But the movement also had a considerable grassroots element: Messages about the event spread to individuals through social media, and many of those promoting the demonstrations online made sure to distance themselves from Navalny and other anti-Kremlin organizations. They said they were interested in the actual issues rather than politics and came out against government corruption, the stagnant Russian economy, rising poverty rates and high food prices.
The number of younger Russians, those in their 20s, taking part in the demonstrations was also notable, since the demographic makeup of previous demonstrations has been notably older. Pro-Kremlin news outlets mocked the young turnout, dubbing the protests a "teenager's rebellion." But privately there is little doubt that the Kremlin is worried about the demographic shift. President Vladimir Putin has been in power for 17 years, most of younger Russians' lives. And he may now have to try to quell dissent from Russians who are too young to remember the chaos and tumult that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.
This younger generation has also been more plugged into Western culture than have their parents, and they have fully embraced social media, including VKontakte (Russia's version of Facebook), Twitter and YouTube. That recent protests are making full use of these communication channels is surely concerning for the Kremlin, and it will not sit idly by while online opposition mounts against it. In fact, the Russian Ministry of Education and Science is launching a program of "moral and patriotic upbringing" for young people online, and the Kremlin has already been increasingly, though selectively, cracking down on online dissent through its stringent internet laws passed last year. Over the past few days, there have been reports that the government has censored social media posts calling for protests this weekend. The government cannot monitor all posts, however, and it will be especially difficult to censor posts on social media platforms not based on Russian servers, such as Twitter.
So far, the Kremlin has not indicated that it is willing to make any concessions to the Russian people. In fact, it seems to be digging its heels in, backing Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, who is the latest official to be wrapped in corruption scandal and who is largely responsible for Russia's economic and financial policies. Putin is showing signs of concern, though: He postponed his annual question-and-answer session with the Russian people. This event is typically an important show of public connection and support. He also made an ominous statement March 30 about the protests, comparing them to the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine and to the Arab Spring and warning that such movements only engender chaos. It could be that the Kremlin has heard rumblings on social media portending protest against Putin himself in late April. Yet, Putin is taking a gamble and not addressing the concerns of protesters, especially given his aging government and the elections scheduled for sometime in the next year.