Russia witnessed the largest anti-government protests in more than five years on March 26, 2017. At the urging of Aleksei Navalny, “tens of thousands of Russians—many of them in their teens and 20s—poured into the streets in scores of cities . . . to protest endemic corruption among the governing elite.” The police responded by beating protesters—a barbaric and psychologically pathological response to peaceful protest—and arresting more than a thousand. As the protests were not directed against Putin, but, rather, corruption, the Kremlin should have been a cheerleader rather than antagonist to the protests.
Aleksei A. Navalny at a court in Moscow on the day after the protests. He told reporters that he was “amazed” by the number of cities and by how many people had taken part in demonstrations. (Source: Denis Tyrin/Associated Press)
Yet personal ties among the elite are by nature enduring. Prompting the protests, Navalny had released a video detailing “a web of dubious charitable organizations that funneled bribes from prominent oligarchs to Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev, allowing him to maintain a series of luxurious estates, vineyards and yachts in Russia and abroad.” The allure of such easy money at the highest level of a government can easily dwarf any desire to reduce systemic corruption inside the system. This can be viewed as private advantage trumping the public good.
Fortunately, young people are sufficiently idealistic to hope for a better, fairer world. “I am glad and happy that a new generation grew up in the country that will not accept such [pro-corruption] atttitudes from the government and wants to feel that they are citizens,” Mavalny told reporters in court after the protests. Middle-aged people can easily slip into the self-fulfilling prophesy that the world cannot be improved much unless the change is in the interest of the political and financial elites. How to hold the most powerful in check is an especially vexing problem for any people, even in a healthy democracy. It is no accident that the elite typically control the media, such as Channel One in Russia. That station ignored the protests—a glaring editorial decision given the station’s duty to report the news.
Had the insiders in the Kremlin been strategizing in an enlightened self-interest, they would have realized that being on the side of the young in opposing corruption would pay off even just in good public relations. Stronger still, rooting out corruption can enhance a government’s stature, and thus the chances of genuine re-electability. Sadly, the old grooves of power tend to lead to clamping down on popular protest regardless of the cause. Rather than aligning, the instinctive reaction is to grasp at the levels of power available to any government: the police power of the state. I submit that a corrupt police state is the downside of politics and even democracy.
1. Neil MacFarquhar and Ivan Nechepurenko, “Aleksei Navalny, Russian Opposition Leader, Receives 15-Day Sentence,” The New York Times, March 27, 2017.