This Week in Info War

Street protests a setback for the Kremlin’s media strategy

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To the apparent surprise of Russia’s leadership, mainstream, pro-regime Russian journalists and foreign observers who long insisted that widespread unrest was unlikely, tens of thousands of ordinary citizens filled the streets of cities across Russia on 26 March to protest the corruption that has defined Vladimir Putin’s tenure as president. The demonstrations—the most significant challenge to Putin’s rule since 2012—began on Russia’s Pacific Coast and rumbled westward in a series of rallies, most of them unsanctioned. They took place not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg—centers of protest five years ago—but also in Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk. Demonstrators even turned out in Makhachkala, a North Caucasus region where Putin regularly receives 90 percent of the vote. The Sunday marches were in response to a call by anti-corruption campaigner and opposition leader Aleksey Navalny. Although Putin remains popular, the protests targeted Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the subject of a recent Navalny-ordered film exposé. But comments from many demonstrators also indicated the mass action was also a sign of general dissatisfaction with the system.

The protests attracted scant coverage in state-controlled media—unlike in 2012, when similar protests were fairly covered by at least some media outlets. This time, Channel One and Rossiya instead aired bulletins about heavy snowfall in Moscow, trouble in Ukraine and a fatal avalanche in Japan. At the height of the unrest, the new RIA website’s top story was “Freedom-Loving Cow in US Escapes Cops in Dramatic Chase”—even as Russian police were dragging protesters away by the hundreds. Russia’s popular Sunday TV shows also failed to mention the protests. Only late in the day did some online media cover the events, though they largely buried the story (the day’s top news was the stabbing of two Russian football fans in Belgrade). Few outlets even mentioned the crowd’s anti-corruption outrage. Also alarming was the behavior of the privately owned Yandex-Novosti—Russia’s largest national news aggregator—which Kremlin authorities have long pressured to suppress unwanted coverage and promote pro-regime stories. On Sunday, Yandex’s local news feed for Moscow prominently featured trivialities such as weather reports warning of a cold spell and promotions for the city’s “Spring Festival.”

With traditional media blocked, it was mainly social networks that mobilized the crowds; this is largely why so many youths turned out. In one widely watched video, Gleb Tokmakov—a fifth grader in Tomsk—patiently explained to a crowd of adults why Russia needed systemic political reform and decried how politicized Russian schools have become. Another featured a 17-year-old in Perm explaining the connection between official corruption and declining living standards

Despite the size of the protests and their unexpectedness, revolution is not in the air. Only 50,000 to 100,000 protesters rallied in total, including 25,000 to 50,000 in 80 to 100 cities. The numbers were much higher at the peak of the “protest wave” in 2011-12. Although it’s true that last week’s demonstrations were not limited to St. Petersburg and Moscow and that younger people turned out, it is too early to tell where will lead. In order effect serious reform, Navalny and his team must reach out and connect to the truckers, farmers and anyone else who might be unhappy if authorities—as is likely to happen now—put the squeeze on the population. 

A key to their success would be signs of an elite split, which may be needed to force change. In order for that to happen, mass protests would most likely have to be part of the picture—but it’s unclear how big they’d have to be and how long they’d need to continue before reaching a critical mass that could prompt any real change. At the moment, at least, there are simply not enough active young people to force that.  Any opposition movement will have to get older generations involved. Navalny cannot just rely on being “cool.” He must generate more broad-based appeal among Russian workers pensioners and veterans—of which relatively few use social media. That is a difficult challenge.