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Across multiple cities in Russia on March 26, thousands attended anti-corruption protests to voice their discontent over recent allegations of corruption inside Russian government. They were presided over by the charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny, head of the Progress party and the Anti-Corruption Foundation.
The protests were triggered by a video in which Navalny exposed the corruption ring that allows Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev to hide expensive properties given to him as briberies from Russian oligarchs, under a facade of charity organizations. The video was published by the Anti-Corruption Foundation on March 2, 2017. All of the anti-corruption rallies were peaceful, and took place in over 100 Russian cities, according to the New York Times. Unfortunately, they were abruptly stopped when Russian police intervened and arrested around 1,000 protesters, one of whom was Navalny himself. Russia Today (RT), a Russian State media outlet reported that Navalny was given 15 days in jail for resisting arrest and a fine of 20,000 Russian Rubles ($350) for staging an illegal protest.

These detentions follow the authoritarian rhetoric that Putin’s government has been pursuing in recent years. From laws banning “gay propaganda” to brutal repression of protesters and other forms of opposition, the Russian government has had a troubled relationship with human rights. However, Navalny’s arrest and the detention of hundreds of protesters demonstrate that the ability of the Russian government to control its citizens is weakening and that Navalny’s rising popularity poses a real threat to the status quo established by Mr. Putin in the Kremlin.

Despite the existence of a government-controlled media, there are some blind spots that have remained relatively untouched, or at least have been able to circumvent the Russian government’s control. Joshua Yaffa, a contributing writer for the New Yorker, illustrates this point by arguing that “younger Russians… are less likely to pay attention to state-controlled TV, and it seems that the Kremlin has less certain tools for reaching this demographic, let alone shaping its political attitudes.” As young people rely more on social media and internet to get information and news, they are out of the reach of state media. In addition, more people are becoming disillusioned with the Russian government, thus the Kremlin’s ability to control people is weakening. One example is Navalny’s aforementioned anti-corruption video, which was posted on YouTube and played over 15 million times.

Last week’s demonstrations show that Navalny has become a prominent opposition figure in Russian politics in the last couple of years. He started as an anti-corruption blogger who denounced the excesses of Putin’s government, to later lead the 2011 protests against irregularities in the parliamentary elections. Navalny also founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the organization that has been investigating corruption rings inside the Russian government, as mentioned before.

The video ignited protest movements in old pro-government bastions like Nizhny Tagil in the Ural Mountains. Navalny has also stated his intentions to run for president in 2018. Despite attracting old pro-Putin sympathizers, he is banned from running for office next year because according to RT, he is currently serving a five-year sentence on fraud charges prohibiting him from running, that would not expire before the next election. However, he has appealed that decision in a constitutional court. This conviction is widely considered as a device from the government to impede Navalny’s presidential aspirations.

The predicament that is currently afflicting the Russian people can only be resolved if people keep voicing their dissatisfaction with their corrupt leaders. However, they must not surrender to a law enforcement that is managed by the current political status quo; it would only improve the legitimacy of a tyrannical regime and worsen the corruption inside the government. Younger generations of Russians, and the charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny are the catalysts for a change in the political system, but it would be futile if the majority of the Russian population is still manipulated by a state media that demonizes any opposition to the Kremlin. Hopefully, this is the start of a change in regime in Russia, before it is too late and its people must suffer the consequences of a country destroyed by corruption.

Sebastian Suarez is a third-year political science major. He can be reached at ssuarez1@uci.edu.

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