MOSCOW – After calling two nationwide demonstrations in three months that have rattled the Kremlin, it’s clear that opposition leader Alexei Navalny has the ability to bring people into the streets.
What’s less certain, however, is whether the demonstrations can grow into a genuine political movement.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets Monday in more than 100 cities and towns across Russia to express their frustration with President Vladimir Putin and governing elites who are largely perceived as corrupt and self-serving.
The Moscow rally broke with the tradition of an orderly opposition gathering where middle-aged protesters chanted anti-Putin slogans on a square in Moscow’s periphery.
Instead, the crowd of mostly teenagers and those in their 20s thronged to a main thoroughfare in the heart of the capital, chanting “Down with the czar!” and climbing scaffolds and lamp posts.
At least 1,750 people were detained at the protests across Russia, with baton-wielding police in riot gear seizing nearly 900 in Moscow alone.
Navalny, who called for the demonstrations, rose to prominence with his investigations of official corruption and is expanding his reach to a younger crowd by posting his videos to YouTube.
He was detained by police outside his Moscow home before he could even head to the protest. That left no one to lead the rally in the capital. Like the other demonstrations across the country, it was chaotic and lacking in any clear political demands.
Those figures usually described as opposition leaders ignored the protests, with the exception of some younger politicians like Ilya Yashin, who does not have much of a following.
Current Russian opposition groups and their leaders don’t seem to hold much attraction for the protesters, said Masha Lipman, an independent Moscow-based political analyst. Navalny may have galvanized the protest, but the slogans mostly targeted Putin and government corruption, with only a fraction expressing support for Navalny.
The charismatic and media-savvy 41-year-old Navalny was once dismissed as a Moscow hipster with no appeal to people in Russia’s far-flung regions.
In December, he launched his bid to oppose Putin in the 2018 presidential campaign and has spent the past five months traveling all over Russia. He set up campaign headquarters in cities and towns that have not seen any viable political life for decades.
The strategy seems to have paid off: some cities in Siberia, for example, saw their largest opposition protests since 1991.
But Monday’s protests, held mostly in defiance of the authorities, lacked any specific political demands, other than a general message against government corruption.
While not a campaign with specific goals, they could be laying the groundwork to tap into large-scale discontent.
“I wouldn’t talk of a movement — I think it’s a preparation stage since society is getting more political,” says Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies. “Navalny’s branches in the regions are building the infrastructure of protest.”
When he was elected for this third presidential term in 2012, Putin relied on an older, more conservative generation that is wary of the West, was deeply traumatized by painful economic reforms of the 1990s, and is afraid of upheaval.
For many years, the Kremlin has touted stability as the main achievement of Putin’s 17 years in power, boosting his popularity estimated at more 80 percent and discouraging Russians from seeking an alternative to his rule.
That same message, however, seems to be falling flat with the young.
“It’s a new generation that does not remember what the Soviet Union is, that has fewer fears of chaos and upheaval associated with the 1990s,” Makarkin said. “When adults tell them ‘What if you lose your job if you go to the protest?’ they don’t get it.”
Just like on Monday, large protests in March stunned Russia watchers because of the high number of demonstrators in their teens and 20s. Prior to that, the younger generation was seen as mostly apolitical.
Lyusya Shteyn was one of the millennials who was arrested Monday in Moscow. On her Facebook page, the 21-year-old posted a selfie showing her in a police van, surrounded by two dozen others her age. She said there was only one “adult man” there.
At one point during the rally, Shteyn found herself facing the line of riot police who were pushing people into an underground passageway.
“I told a policeman that I have the right to stand where I want to stand and I’m not going to go away,” Shteyn said.
She spent five hours in detention and faces up to 15 days in jail for taking part in an illegal rally. A chat at the police station did nothing to discourage Shteyn, who has just graduated from Russia’s leading cinema school, from taking part in protests again.
“One policeman said we have been paid; another suggested I find a boyfriend and get a pet and stop going to rallies,” she said.
“I want to keep doing what I’m doing,” Shteyn said. “I think people will come out again just in response to these arrests.”