On Sunday, March 26, around 90,000 Russians came out across the country to protest. The outpouring was a huge surprise, not just because of the large scale or because the rallies took place beyond traditional protest hubs in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Much more surprising was the fact that Russians showed up because of an anticorruption campaign. To be sure, Russians have long bemoaned graft. Yet most investigations inspire only a muted public response: “Yes, we knew. But what can we do?”

This time, however, corruption investigations have sparked something more: the largest response to an anticorruption campaign since President Vladimir Putin came to power almost two decades ago. The story begins on March 2, when the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which is linked to the Russian opposition, released an exposé about Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. The FBK revealed that Medvedev had amassed a fortune of 70 billion rubles ($1.2 billion)—a trifle more than what he could have saved from his official salary. FBK’s video has since been seen over 15 million times and counting. Surely, there are many red faces in the Kremlin.

That stands in stark contrast to the visage of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s main opposition figure, who was leading the investigation. Shortly after the exposé was released, he was splattered with green paint by a provocateur at a rally meant to kick off his 2018 presidential campaign in Russia’s east. Realizing that the paint was not acidic or poison, Navalny soon turned the smear into an iconic moment on Instagram. Green faces went viral. One man wearing green face paint was arrested in Red Square for disturbing the peace.

Protesting in Russia has always been a bit risky. But for a while now, it has been almost entirely illegal. In late 2011, mass protests followed the rigged Duma elections. These were dubbed the Snow Revolution because the largest protests took place in the dead of winter. Fearful of his power slipping away, Putin went to work, making protest an even more complicated bureaucratic undertaking. He gave law enforcement agencies new legal tools to prosecute protesters, and to signal his seriousness, he urged them to jail a few prominent examples. Following the May 6, 2012 “March of Millions,” 34 protestors were prosecuted. Of those, 14 received between 2.5 and 4.5 years in prison, two ended up with 3.3 years of probation, and one was sentenced to compulsory treatment.

Alexei Navalny being detained in Moscow, March 2017.
Alexei Navalny being detained in Moscow, March 2017.
Maxim Shemetov / REUTERS

As a result, the Putin regime has largely managed to ward off any further public displays of outrage. (Except for a few rare demonstrations that the Kremlin did permit, such as those commemorating the assassinated leader of the Russian liberal opposition, Boris Nemtsov, all attempts to gather were quickly stormed by numerous policemen.) That’s why last Sunday’s marches of thousands—in Moscow and St. Petersburg and from Vladivostok in the Far East to Novosibirsk in the middle of the country to the European enclave of Kaliningrad—were met with astonishment from the organizers and authorities alike. In Moscow alone, 1,030 people were arrested. Across the country, more than 1,800 people were arrested, among them more than a dozen journalists. 

Now the Kremlin has two options for responding.

Several journalists, public figures, and experts have argued that the last several months have seen a mellowing of the Putin regime ahead of the presidential elections of 2018. In this telling, Putin would like his government to appear more inclusive and less aggressive and hawkish to produce an atmosphere of a “normality” that would prevent possible aggravation of discontent directed at Putin personally.

The alleged political thaw is attributed to Sergey Kiriyenko, former prime minister and now first deputy chief of staff to the president. He was hired in October of 2016 to replace Vyacheslav Volodin, whom the liberals termed the brutal “godfather of bigots.” It is generally believed that Kiriyenko was brought on board to get Putin reelected with what is known as 70/70: 70 percent turnout and 70 percent support. Such ambitious plans demand attracting more trust and allowing at least one candidate who could be viewed as politically independent to run.

In short, one way or another, letting Navalny run against Putin would help legitimize Putin’s reelection and disarm criticism that the Kremlin does not allow any competition.

The Kremlin has two options for responding.

If this interpretation is correct, then the Kremlin will avoid responding to the recent protests with harsh retaliation and criminal prosecutions. It would limit itself to minor penalties and a return to “managing” political activity in the country. For example, it might opt for a state-run patriotic alternative for youth through which it might take over the anticorruption agenda by jailing a few politicians or bureaucrats here and there, channeling propaganda to sow distrust of Navalny, and finally co-opting any politicians and leaders who have participated in the protests on various levels.

Such behavior, of course, would signal to Navalny and the opposition that the regime is not as bloodthirsty and brutal as one might think. In turn, the opposition would likely take the opportunity to stage even bigger demonstrations.

The likelihood of such a scenario playing out, however, is relatively low.

Instead of trying for a complicated balancing act that would preserve the illusion of relative tolerance, the Kremlin could hit the protestors and the rest of the country with selective arrests, effectively paralyzing Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation with criminal charges.

In this case, no one could have any illusions about the 2018 presidential elections being a real contest. To reach its desired turnout, the Kremlin would have to pump up the propaganda and other efforts. Today, the “Crimean consensus” is wearing off; the euphoria that many Russians supposedly experienced after the annexation of Crimea is all but gone. The social issues that Russians avoided mentioning over the last three years are haunting the Kremlin. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin on a military base in Franz Josef Land, March 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on a military base in Franz Josef Land, March 2017.
Sergei Karpukhin / REUTERS

Economic hardship has come for Russians across the country. It is thus crucial that the Kremlin prevent big city dwellers from opting for mass protest. It has already sentenced Navalny to administrative arrest for 15 days, leaving him out of any new rallies for the next two weeks. Navalny’s colleague at the FBK, Leonid Volkov, has been charged with the criminal offense of “inciting hatred” during the online broadcast of the Sunday march. In total, 11 members of the FBK remain under administrative arrest (for 10–15 days each). The group’s offices have been stormed and most of the equipment removed.

The Kremlin may soon launch a major propaganda offensive against traitors, the “fifth column” that follows the orders of overseas masters who want to bring chaos and destruction to Russia. For now, they are actively trying to frame the marches as acts of rebellious youths. The state has exaggerated the role of minors, downplayed the geographic diversity of the marches, and papered over the reasons that caused them. Putin’s press secretary went even further, suggesting that Navalny has promised young Russians money if they are detained by police.

The price of not suppressing what started on March 26 might be too high for the Kremlin to pay, especially a year before the elections that would install Putin for his fourth presidential term. Preserving power has been Putin’s greatest motive since he stepped into office in 2000. There is no reason to believe that he will act any differently now. For now, however, members of Russia’s opposition are waiting to see exactly how the Kremlin will respond. The scales are tipping toward retaliation, and the arrest of Navalny is only the beginning.

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  • ANTON BARBASHIN is a visiting expert at the Kennan Institute and Managing Editor of Intersection
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