When Alexei Navalny entered the courtroom on Thursday, the Russian opposition politician was presented like a criminal: in handcuffs and chained to a beefy police officer.
The court was hearing his appeal against a minor administrative sentence — the sort of appearance that has become almost routine for the anti-corruption activist. Over the past six years he has faced three criminal trials for what he says are trumped-up charges and repeated arrests for organising demonstrations.
But for the Kremlin, Mr Navalny is quickly becoming a considerably more dangerous figure. Last Sunday, tens of thousands heeded his call to protest against corruption, a surprise display of huge dissent against the regime of President Vladimir Putin, which has spent so much of the past year sowing intrigue abroad rather than facing challenges at home.
These were the largest demonstrations in Russia in five years. It was also the first time during Mr Putin’s 17 years in power that protests reached across the colossal country from its European enclave of Kaliningrad to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. In the process, they have shattered the Kremlin’s confidence that it will turn presidential elections early next year into a triumphant endorsement of Mr Putin’s rule.
“I was there and it was so very cool,” says Marina Andreeva, a 21-year-old journalism student who participated in the rally in St Petersburg, her first demonstration. “It felt great to stand together with so many like-minded people,” she adds. “I went to show that I have a voice and I want answers.”
A figure depicting Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is held aloft during a rally in Vladivostok last Sunday © Reuters
What galvanised her, and thousands of other very young Russians taking to the streets for the first time, was an online video by Mr Navalny accusing Dmitry Medvedev, prime minister and one of Mr Putin’s most loyal lieutenants, of a huge scheme of corruption that has allegedly put luxury estates and vineyards at his disposal. Many of the demonstrators brought rubber ducks in a mocking reference to a house Mr Medvedev built for his ducks.
Ms Andreeva describes herself as apolitical and says she didn’t vote in last autumn’s Duma elections. But that is changing. On her blog, where she normally writes about food and fitness, she posted an account of last Sunday’s protest. While she is unsure what to think of Mr Navalny as a politician, she says she will not go back to political apathy. “In the presidential election, I will vote! I don’t know for whom yet, but I want things to change. I’m tired of this one,” she says, referring to Mr Putin. “He has stayed on for too long.”
Putin generation’s moment
The young woman’s sudden political awakening highlights the Kremlin’s miscalculation about an entire generation that was long believed to be a pillar
of Mr Putin’s support. Russians under 25 were largely absent from the street protests led by Mr Navalny in 2011 and 2012 against electoral fraud and Mr Putin’s return to the presidency, after the interval he spent as prime minister to avoid constitutional term limits.
Vladimir Putin: says he is in favour of fighting corruption, but does not want to see the protests used for political campaigning © AP
Sociologists and teachers in close contact with the “Putin generation” often describe it as loyal followers of Mr Putin and strong backers of his aggressive foreign policy. According to Levada, the country’s only independent pollster, 72 per cent of those aged between 18 and 24 supported Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea — a markedly higher proportion than the 55 per cent registered among the over-60s. Levada also found young people’s support for Mr Putin’s overall performance has been continuously higher than the national average — the latest poll in January even put the positive assessment of his policies at 91 per cent among the youth.
In late 2013, when Mr Navalny came second with a respectable 27 per cent share of the vote in a Moscow mayoral election despite being denied access to mainstream media and having his campaign hit by legal harassment, the lion’s share of his votes came from pensioners.
And yet, the opposition leader is targeting the country’s youth. Although a regional court reinstated a fraud verdict in early February that bars him from running for public office, he is ramping up a presidential election campaign. In an interview with the Financial Times in February, he said his support was strongest among the young, and he would try to convince them to vote.
Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev © AFP
By targeting Mr Medvedev with corruption allegations, Mr Navalny may have pressed all the right buttons. Despite young Russians’ apparent apathy, polls show that the level of anger over top-level corruption is much higher among this group than in other age ranges, and it is growing.
“We used to see Mr Medvedev as some kind of a cool guy. He uses an iPad, he went to the US and met Steve Jobs, he seemed to be more modern, more international, more of a reformer,” says Kirill Shamiev, another 21-year-old protester from St Petersburg. “But now we have had an unpleasant awakening — he is just like all the others.”
Some analysts believe that targeting the prime minister, who was once seen as a reformer, helps discredit the leadership as a whole because it erodes hopes that reform-minded or liberal members of the political leadership can balance the influence of Mr Putin’s hardline friends from the security services.
“Among those who could be Medvedev supporters, maybe the accumulated irritation grew out of just this apparent affinity: he looks like one of their own but behaves in a way hard to distinguish from others,” writes Alexander Baunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“Much of the anger arises from Medvedev’s failure to explain himself to people who see both — Medvedev and Navalny — as different kinds of political representatives for them. We listened to one, and now we want to listen to another,” he adds. “This has also reinforced the dissatisfaction with Putin, who five years ago refused to properly explain the reasons for his return to the presidency.”
Young people who leaned towards the opposition before feel emboldened. “I have been feeling quite alone, but now, gradually, some of my friends and other youngsters are becoming more critical,” Mr Shamiev says. “Many are still careful not to openly express their negative views about Putin, but they are getting more pessimistic.”
Alena Narvskaya, a 17-year-old high school student and Navalny supporter, spent the night in jail after getting arrested at the Moscow protest for holding up a sign with a popular Russian meme that said, “Stop Duck inequality!” “I was pleasantly surprised I saw so many people my own age,” she says. “I think it was because Navalny did the investigation in this entertaining format — it was a lot easier for young people to take on board.”
Ms Narvskaya’s father spent the night in jail with her after learning of her arrest. “He went through the whole system with me and understands how destructive it is,” she says.
Russian riot police detain a demonstrator during an opposition rally in central Moscow last Sunday © EPA
Protests even spread to some of the most authoritarian, pro-Putin provinces in Russia.
“Our province also has its own little monarchy,” says Ksenia Pakhomova, 23, who attended the protest in Kemerovo, a Siberian region run by the country’s longest-serving governor. “Several top-ranking officials are facing criminal charges. These problems are something we know very well,” she adds. “If protests have started even in our region, where most people supposedly support [the government], then it’s a bad sign for the Kremlin. People are mad and now they can see they’re not alone.”
Mr Navalny’s video has been watched more than 15m times since its publication on March 2, garnering broader attention for the protests. Since the weekend, 100,000 more people have subscribed to his YouTube channel, taking the total to 709,000 and exceeding those who follow the YouTube platforms of state news outlets RT, Rossiya 24 and Channel One.
Mr Navalny will need all that publicity. Police cracked down last Sunday, with 1,000 arrests in Moscow alone. The authorities have also started a campaign to warn the young off protesting. On Thursday, students in the southern city of Samara were herded to a seminar where the regional governor lectured them about the dangers of “extremism”. At a university in the Siberian city of Tomsk, a teacher called those participating in demonstrations “freaks”.
Mr Putin on Thursday compared the protests with the Arab Spring and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine — both events the Kremlin has demonised and viewed as acute threats. He warned that while he was in favour of fighting corruption, the topic must not be abused for political campaigning and those who violated the law would be punished.
Mr Navalny’s aim is to create a movement so large that his candidacy in the presidential elections can no longer be ignored. Vladimir Ashurkov, who runs his Anti-Corruption Foundation from exile in London, says the campaign is intended to convince the Kremlin that it would be a “lesser evil” to allow Mr Navalny on to the ballot.
“We want to implant the notion that without Navalny the elections will not be representative or legitimate,” Mr Ashurkov adds. “He’s a man with the sharpest political acumen there is. He takes risks and he wins.”