When it comes to protests, size does matter. Nationwide demonstrations against government corruption took place across Russia on Sunday, organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny to coincide with the 17th anniversary of Vladimir Putin's initial election to the presidency. And as expected, estimates of the turnout vary widely. The Kremlin claims 8,000 people attended the protests in Moscow, along with a few hundred more spread out across other Russian cities. The opposition, on the other hand, asserted that 30,000 protesters marched in the capital, with thousands of demonstrators active elsewhere. Either way, the events — Russia's largest protests in five years — fell well short of the mass demonstrations that drew hundreds of thousands of Russians to the streets in 2011-12 to decry allegedly rigged parliamentary elections and Putin's return to the presidency. But what the overall demonstrations lacked in scale, they made up for in scope.
Unlike the 2011-12 demonstrations, which were concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Western observers noted that Sunday's protests took place in an estimated 80 cities. People gathered from St. Petersburg all the way to Vladivostok, in the capital, the Caucasus and across Siberia. The number and dispersion of the demonstrations reflects a couple of concurrent trends in Russia. Though the country is projected to pull out of its economic doldrums this year, most of its people are still suffering the effects of recession. The number of Russians living below the poverty line has increased by 15 percent in the past two years, and more than half of Russians say they have no hope that they will regain economic security. At the same time, the number of millionaires and billionaires in Russia has risen by 10 percent in the past year, widening the gulf between the country's uppermost classes and everyone else.
The dire economic straits and glaring inequality have given Navalny a wider and more attentive audience for his anti-corruption campaigns. For months ahead of the protests, the opposition leader stumped across the country, excoriating the Russian government officials he accused of graft and greed. Navalny and other figures in the opposition have published a new account of Kremlin elites' exorbitant wealth every few weeks over the past year. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, along with Novaya Gazeta, followed oil czar Igor Sechin's wife, Olga, last year as she vacationed across the Mediterranean on an 85-meter yacht — a story viewed nearly a million times. Earlier in March, a group of investigative journalists called the Investigations Management Center published photos of presidential aide Vladislav Surkov's wife throwing an extravagant Marie Antoinette-themed party, the irony of which was not lost on struggling Russians. The report got a million views in less than a week. And around the same time, Navalny released a series of videos showing Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev's lavish lifestyle and claiming the leader has embezzled millions of dollars and owns an $85 million home. (Medvedev, in fact, spent the day of the protests at an elite ski resort, where he posted on social media about his delightful vacation.)
Navalny is doing more than muckraking, though. Seizing on the economic uncertainty of the day, he is campaigning on an anti-corruption platform to draw supporters who may not entirely agree with his politics but feel the Russian government isn't doing enough to close the yawning wealth gap. Other protests have popped up in Russia, too. Crowds turned out to demonstrate about the banking crisis in Tatarstan in February, and on Monday, truckers' unions blocked traffic in 70 cities to protest a tax hike. Navalny recognizes the dissatisfaction rampant among the Russian people. Now, he is trying to organize it into a larger movement against Putin's government.
In response, the Kremlin cracked down on Sunday's demonstrations and their mastermind, arresting some 1,400 protesters in Moscow alone. But nearly all those arrested were simply fined and released. Navalny himself received a $352 fine — modest by the Kremlin's standards — though he is serving a 15-day jail sentence for refusing to pay it. The opposition heavyweight is also legally barred from running against Putin in next year's presidential elections since he was convicted of federal embezzlement March 1. Even so, Navalny has forged ahead with his campaign, opening election offices across the country.
The Kremlin could still slap a prison sentence on Navalny at any point, of course, but for now, it seems that Moscow may view his protest movement as a much-needed release for the downtrodden Russian people. If the protests pick up momentum or expand beyond Navalny's corruption crusade, however, the Russian government will probably change its approach. And if the country keeps going down the path it's on, this weekend's demonstrations may well prove to be the start of bigger problems for the Putin administration.