What changes will protests in Russia bring?

For the first time in years thousands of predominantly young people took to the streets of numerous Russian cities a week ago to demonstrate against corruption. The police arrested a large number of demonstrators. Commentators argue that the protests also contain a message for Western Europe.

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Expresso (PT) /

Russia is more than just Putin

In view of the successful protests Western Europe in particular must review its image of Russia, Expresso admonishes:

“In Western Europe we tend to reduce Russia - the largest country in the world - to the Kremlin and its current tenants. The protests that took place in numerous Russian cities last Sunday provide a good opportunity to correct this oversimplified view. … The political consequences of these events are significant: firstly, [regime critic] Navalny has managed to anticipate the presidential election campaign and forced the Kremlin to adjust its political message. Moreover the protests have called into question the legitimacy of Putin's regime. The latter's popularity, boosted by the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the display of military power in the Middle East since 2015, is waning within Russian society. The country appears to be finding its way back to normality.”

Ilta-Sanomat (FI) /

No one rules for ever

The protests on the weekend have reminded Russian President Putin that he is not invulnerable, Ilta-Sanomat writes:

“For years Putin was like one of those dark princes in the fairy tales whose every intrigue is crowned with success. ... But this image began to crack on the weekend. ... A strong national guard has now been put together so he is armed against the unrest. Putin learned his lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, shied away from using force. Putin, by contrast, has no such scruples. ... Russia seethes with nationalist, armed men who have been hardened by Putin's wars. A collapse of the system could result in bloody chaos. That makes many hesitant. Nevertheless Putin has now been reminded that no one remains in power for ever.”

Neatkarīgā (LV) /

Political thaw in Russia and Belarus

People also took to streets to protest in the Belarusian capital Minsk on the weekend. The police there used brutal means to break up the demonstrations. A change of regime in both Russia and Belarus is long overdue, Neatkarīgā comments:

“The police in Belarus and Russia act as if they were in a totalitarian state. Instead of defending the people against criminals they do the opposite. Such a configuration cannot last for long and will inevitably lead to confrontation. … Back in 1991 the ruling regime collapsed. Those in power at the time realised that they couldn't just oppose their own people. A similar scenario could quickly emerge in Belarus and Russia. From the Latvian perspective we must take the political thaw in our neighbouring countries with a pinch of salt. … We all want relations between the East and West to improve. But this is impossible as long as the authoritarian leaders in Russia and Belarus remain in power. … It would therefore be advantageous for us if the current regimes were replaced.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung (DE) /

Young protesters haven't experienced repression

A surprisingly high number of young people are also demonstrating, the Süddeutsche Zeitung comments:

“Sociologists of the independent Levada Center have been measuring the protest potential in Russian society since the 1990s. Never have the values been so low for so long as they have since the annexation of Crimea. ... Now it turns out that the statistics have a blind spot: the surveys only covered adults. But a surprising number of demonstrators on Sunday were high school and university students. Parents had to go and collect their children from the police station. The generation that has known nothing but Putin's Russia since it was born still doesn't see it as decreed by nature that corrupt elites steal their future. As they were still children during the last wave of protests they haven't yet experienced repression themselves. But that may change now.”

Postimees (EE) /

New demonstrators challenge the Kremlin

The protests in the provinces could be more dangerous for the Russian leadership than those in Moscow, Postimees explains:

“In comparison to the entire Russian population 150,000 people is not very many. But they show that social tensions can also flare up in regions that until now have been loyal to the Kremlin. On more or less independent regional news websites one reads that the three years of economic stagnation, together with the associated unemployment and inflation, have increasingly led people to believe they have nothing to lose. Before the last presidential elections demonstrators in Moscow caused problems for the Kremlin. But now the Kremlin has a far more dangerous adversary than Navalny: the poor, angry people from the provinces. They are backed by young people who for the first time are joining the protests en masse - another new enemy for the Kremlin.”

De Volkskrant (NL) /

Navalny's message growing louder

The opposition to President Vladimir Putin is forming with Alexei Navalny at its head, De Volkskrant writes excitedly:

“Navalny has shown that he can mobilise the discontented, not only in Moscow's intellectual circles but also in Makhachkala on the Caspian Sea coast. ... He has inspired a new generation to come out and protest, the first that has known no other leader than Putin. ... The question is when Navalny's message will get through to the population as a whole. On television, which is completely under state control, the protests are not even mentioned. But Sunday's demonstrations were so large and so widespread that viewers heard about them nonetheless: a movement against their president is getting off the ground.”

Financial Times (GB) /

Back the fight against corruption

The West can best aid the protest movement by helping to drain the swamp of corruption in Russia, the Financial Times counsels:

“The Russian demonstrations, for now, seem unlikely to grow into something that could threaten the government's stability. The Kremlin will surely not allow it. ... But western countries should help tackle corruption by clamping down on use of international financial infrastructure and offshore havens to launder Russian money. They should also continue to speak out in defence of Russians' constitutional rights. That is not, as Moscow alleges, about backing regime change. It is about providing moral support to the many Russians who yearn for a fairer, more law-based system.”