More than 60,000 people gathered in 82 cities of Russia on 26 March, 2017, to protest against the corruption of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. As stated by Meduza, a Riga-based news source, the rallies were the biggest protest movement in Russia since the 2012 demonstrations in the aftermath of the previous presidential elections. By comparison, the recent protest gathered more protesters in more regions of Russia than ever before, which resulted in more arrests than at any other event in the last five years. Russian law enforcement detained people across the country, including underaged Russians and a journalist from The Guardian, Alec Luhn. The most crowded rallies were located in Moscow with nearly 8,000 participants and 1,030 detained, and Saint-Petersburg with 3,000 participants and 131 detained. Alexei Navalny, leader of the Russian Progress Party, was also arrested during the protests and sentenced to 15 days imprisonment.
In light of the degenerating living standards of Russian citizens, the public mobilized around a message that accused Medvedev and his government of failing to answer allegations of corruption put forth by the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Created by Navalny, the foundation is an NGO that monitors cases of corruption among Russian elites. The foundation is comprised of lawyers who regularly publish investigations and write applications to responsible law enforcement agencies. However, the foundation is largely rejected by the Russian government, isolated from mainstream media, and has constant issues with widespread broadcasting to the Russian population.
Correspondingly, the Russian Progress Party proclaimed itself as the non-systemic opposition and nominated Navalny as its frontrunner for the Russian presidential election in 2018. Nonetheless, Navalny has been accused by the Russian government of using the protests and the Anti-Corruption Foundation to forward his campaign and political motives. In addition, accusations of fraud in the Kirovles case could restrict Navalny from participating in the election. Responding to the allegations, Navalny declared that he disagrees with the verdict of the Russian courts and will appeal to European courts instead, while continuing his presidential campaign. Since Navalny’s role in the Progress Party and the Anti-Corruption Foundation may create a conflict of interest, the Russian authorities allege that Navalny influences the investigations conducted and not conducted by the foundation.
The foundation also produced a documentary film, Don’t Call Him Dimon, illustrating evidence that depicts certain corruption schemes used by the Prime Minister. Being viewed by at least 15 million Russians, this investigation revealed that Medvedev currently owns several properties as well as vineyards in Russia and Tuscany and two yachts both named Fotinya, which come to the sum of approximately 70 billion rubles or $1.2 billion. The investigation indicates that Medvedev’s assets are officially bought and managed by Charity groups and Foundations that are affiliated with Medvedev through his close university peers. To support these affiliation allegations, the foundation compared data on holders and directors of several NGOs, funds and companies, extracts from registrations of legal entities, financial statements, balance sheet statements, materials of legal proceedings, annual reports of organizations and other sources.
Investigating Medvedev’s branched network, the foundation found it to be similar to the model of Vladimir Putin’s that was disclosed in the Panama Papers. Moreover, the investigation extended further to claim that Medvedev owned wine and agribusiness ventures, which is forbidden for all ministers by Russian law. The foundation alleges that Medvedev’s affiliates obtained property for him with the help of Russian oligarchs Alisher Usmanov, Leonid Michelson, Leonid Simonovsky, and fictitious auctions on state lands and credits from Bashneft and Gazprombank. On the other hand, prior to Navalny’s investigation, Medvedev asserted that the poor life conditions of Russians cannot be improved due to the lack of government funds.
The large-scale rallies of 2012 led to the tightening of sanctions for violations of the established procedure for organizing or holding a meeting, rally, demonstration, procession or picketing. In response to the 2012 protests, the Russian government introduced several new restrictive measures including an inflated minimum fine from 1,000 to 10,000 rubles for participation and from 20,000 rubles for organisers, longer arrests extending from 10 to 20 days, and a fine from 600,000 to 1,000,000 rubles or imprisonment for up to 5 years for more than 2 ‘administrative’ offences during 180 days. According to Article 5 and Article 12 of the federal law № 54-ФЗ, any action such as meetings, demonstrations, and marches held by more than one person must be authorized, otherwise activists can be detained and punished according to either articles of administrative or criminal code. In 61 of 82 cities, rallies were not sanctioned, meaning that people were not protected from police violations. The First Deputy Minister of Interior, Alexander Gorodovoy, declared before the demonstrations that “law enforcement agencies [would] not be responsible” for any misconduct.
Members of the Anti-Corruption Foundation have been covering rallies in various cities online. The police arrested the foundation’s entire active staff during the broadcast for “resistance to police officers” on their second visit, after they failed to evacuate the building due to an anonymous phone callalerting them about a bomb threat. The broadcast, watched by 130,000 people, continued from a second studio. After a night at the police station, 11 of the foundation staff were sentenced to 5 to 7 days of imprisonment, whilst one received a fine. Leonid Volkov, head of Navalny’s presidential campaign, was arrested for refusing to leave at the request of the police and sentenced to 10 days imprisonment along with other campaign staff. After the incident, the Federal Security Service searched the foundation’s headquarters and confiscated computers and documents. Members of the Anti-Corruption Foundation stated that they will continue to work.
Even though March 26 marked a huge uprising in protests, many Russian media sources and government officials have yet to comment on these events. Perviy Kanal (Channel One Russia) did not include any news on Navalny’s detention or the protests in Russia, NTV also did not indicate any updates of the protest silence about the events, TASS although covered the events did not present any reaction from state officials. Rather than commenting on the Russian protests, Perviy Kanal has been selectivelyreporting on protests occurring in foreign nations, as one headline on April 2 read, “Protests cruelly suppressed in the democratic countries of the West.” The Speaker of the State Duma, Vyatcheslav Volodin, reiterated this perspective, stating that “in Europe there are protests every day,” and that the police is far more brutal. It is possible that the Russian government could be deflecting allegations of corruption and abusive law enforcement during protests by using the protests that occur in Western nations.
The Kremlin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov also insisted that school children were lured to participate in rallies, with the promise of potential rewards. The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation affirmedthat it had received evidence of bribery and would investigate. Due to Medvedev’s alternative commitments on March 26, he was only able to respond to allegations of corruption on April 4. He said that the investigation was a political attempt to discredit the authorities, that it had vested interests behind it, and that it represents a “compôte” made of different sorts of “turbidity” and “nonsense”. Medvedev accused Navalny of being in the “dishonorable position” of putting the youth “under law enforcement machinery” in order to achieve his political goals.
The pressure on Medvedev is mounting. In the following days after the protests, Russian film directors and actors supported imprisoned activists in their speeches at the Nika cinema awards and particularly those arrested on March 26th, whilst also condemning actions by the police. The leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, Sergey Mironov, also challenged Medvedev to answer citizens’ concerns. This appears to show that whilst the rallies did not achieve immediate results, they demonstrated an awakening of Russia’s population that is being mirrored in the Russian political sphere. Moreover, this looks set to continue as young people are becoming more emboldened to protest, despite threats of punishment exercised since 2011-2012. The rallies against Medvedev might turn out to be the first step to a new Russian government.
Photo: Corruption protests in Saint-Petersburg on 26 March, 2017, by Alex Sokolov, via Flicker. Licensed under Public Domain.
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