Anger at corruption comes to a head in Russia

Tens of thousands of people came out in Moscow and other Russian cities on March 26 in response to a call to protest corruption and repression. It was the largest show of dissent in five years and comes as Russian society continues to endure a devastating economic crisis that began with the collapse of oil and energy prices two years ago.

The size and spread of the demonstrations took everybody by surprise. They were a response to a call to protest by opposition political leader Alexei Navalny after he released a video--which went viral on the Internet, documenting the crimes of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who according to Navalny has amassed a a collection of palaces, yachts and property during his time in office. Medvedev may have been chosen because he is an easier target, but he is a puppet serving strongman President Vladimir Putin.

Riot police were out in force in Moscow and other cities. At least 1,000 people were arrested in the capital alone, including Navalny and his immediate staff--they were hit with fines and even several weeks of jail time for participating in an unauthorized demonstration.

Yurii Colombo writes from Moscow on what the demonstrations looked like and what they mean for the future.

Thousands gathered in Moscow and other Russian cities to protest corruption and inequalityThousands gathered in Moscow and other Russian cities to protest corruption and inequality

SASHA IS a 17-year-old from the suburbs of Moscow. He only found out about the March 26 demonstration that morning when he got to the subway station where he meets his friends every day.

He and two friends decided to go to the protest to see what it was like. Sasha hates the police, but he didn't know much about the issues that led to the call. "But when I got there, I realized that I agreed," he said. "They want more democracy and less corruption in this country."

Youth like Sasha were the big news about the protests in Moscow and other cities organized for March 26 by the liberal opposition led by Alexei Navalny. Tverskaya Street--Moscow's main boulevard--was filled with teenagers for the Sunday demonstration.

Even Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a newspaper close to Vladimir Putin, estimated afterward that at least 70 percent of the protesters were students below college age--though the paper claimed their participation was as a "cool pastime" rather than real political engagement.

The well-educated middle-class youth, who had been the heart of demonstrations against Putin in 2011-12, weren't there on Sunday, or watched from the sidewalks. Also missing was the "red-brown" opposition of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation or the "National Bolshevik" hooligans of Eduard Limonov's party.

Instead, the main participants were the young people from the Moscow suburbs who never been interested in politics before.

There were also demonstrations, large and small, in several dozen other Russian cities. The biggest besides Moscow were in Vladivostok and St. Petersburg. In Samara and other cities, demonstrators were stopped by police as they still gathering. All told, as many as 100,000 may have participated--or tried to--in the unauthorized demonstrations on March 26.

According to media reports, police arrested about 1,000 people during the protests in Moscow.

Already, several dozen young people have been sentenced to 15 days in prison and a fine of about $350--which is over half the median monthly wage in Moscow of about $ 500 to $600. The police clearly wanted to file charges against young people who had never participated in a protest before, as a means of intimidating them.

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THE DEMONSTRATIONS had a sharper edge than the anti-government protests of 2011-12.

Those marches and rallies--which erupted after fraudulent parliamentary elections that were rigged so the government led by Vladimir Putin could keep its iron grip--were the largest since the fall of the USSR two decades before.

But they came amid a period of robust economic growth that strongly benefited the middle class. Conditions for workers and seniors also improved in this period. Underlying the mobilizations against fraud and corruption was the desire to ensure equal opportunities for all.

Today, the protests come after two years of a deep recession set off by the worldwide collapse in energy prices. Thus, the social context for Navalny's slogans about the "struggle against corruption" are very different.

In the big cities, it is necessary for people to take two and sometimes even three jobs to survive. Wages have fallen by as much as 20 percent over the last three years. What was once talked about as the "Russian dream" has become a nightmare.

This is the context for understanding the bitter anger over corruption, which has long penetrated all levels of government and most other aspects of life in Russia. According to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Russia ranks near the bottom among all countries.

Corruption is a huge fact of economic life. According to official the Russian Federal State Statistics Service, bribes, fraud and other forms of corruption amount to 7 percent of gross domestic product, but that figure is thought to be way low--independent expects put the number at 25 percent.

For working class people with incomes that have declined drastically because of the economic crisis, corruption makes the daily struggle to get by that much harder.

Though he has a reputation as courageous opponent of the government, willing to brave arrest, Navalny is moderate liberal and an entrepreneur who built up his popularity in the last 10 years by associating himself with the sentiment for a more Western-style democracy.

In 2013, Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow and got 27.2 percent of the vote. Now, he wants to run in 2018 Russian presidential election against Putin. He would almost certainly lose, but it appears that Putin doesn't want to take the chance of having an opponent who could generate genuine enthusiasm.

A poll taken in January reported that 25 percent of young people in Moscow were ready to vote for him, and that number is surely higher now. He won't get anything like that kind of support in areas outside Moscow and the major cities, nor from older voters, where Putin still has a strong hold.

However, the situation could change even more than it has if sections of the Russian elite decide to support Navalny or if the economic situation of the country grows worse.

Navalny won't be the real alternative that young people clearly want--he defends a pro-capitalist agenda, though a liberal on. But Russian youth and workers could take advantage of the popularity of his opposition to organize for the defense of social and civil rights in Russia, which is an indispensible condition for building a new left.

Putin already got a warning signal about simmering discontent with unexpected rise in opposition expressed in the elections for the Duma last October. Now, after the March 26 demonstrations, the protests have turned from passive to active.

Sasha, the 17-year-old from the suburbs, is sure this is how things will go in the future. "Things have to change," he said. "Salaries must be the higher, and the police should not harass young people. I believe that if all the people unite, we will win."

Alan Maass contributed to this article.