Last week saw the largest anti-corruption protests in Russia since 2011. Zuzia Whelan profiles the leader of the opposition Alexei Navalny.
An explosion on the St Petersburg metro yesterday left 14 people dead, and at least 49 injured, according to reports.
A Russian national born in Kyrgyzstan has been identified by Kyrgyz authorities as the bomber. Whether or not it was a suicide attack is unconfirmed, and no groups have claimed responsibility.
A three-day mourning period has begun on the back of anti-corruption protests last week, underlining a period of growing uncertainty in the country, as Russians contend with tragedy and political unrest.
Last week on 26 March, thousands of Russians marched in nationwide protests, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev over allegations of corruption.
The rallies took place in over 90 cities across 11 time zones, and all but 17 were declared illegal gatherings by the Russian authorities.
In Moscow, Alexei Navalny, the leader of the opposition, was one of the hundreds who were detained by authorities.
Mr Navalny was given a 15-day prison sentence for resisting arrest during the protest.
These were arguably the largest anti-corruption protests since 2011–2012, when thousands protested alleged election fraud following the re-election of President Vladimir Putin.
As reported in The Guardian, at least 20 million Russians are living below the poverty line as of 2016 and a suffering economy, corruption allegations are likely to inspire animosity.
However, there was one major difference.
More young people than ever before are adding their voices to the protest, suggesting that Russia’s ruling party may be losing touch with younger generations.
On 30 March, after five days of radio silence and a near media blackout, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the protests. He criticized Mr Navalny for using them for his own political advantage.
Speaking to state-funded broadcaster, Russia Today, Mr Putin told reporters that his government persistently stands for fighting corruption.
“The problem has become lesser in recent times, public opinion polls testify to that,” he added.
Who is Alexei Navalny?
Alexei Navalny is a lawyer, politician, activist and chairman of the Progress Party, part of Russia’s government opposition.
Mr Navalny has been dubbed by many news organisations as ‘the man Putin fears most.’
He also founded Russia’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF). The ACF is self-titled “the only Russian-based NGO that investigates, exposes and fights corruption among high-ranking Russian government officials.”
Navalny has been an outspoken critic of President Putin, and more recently, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
In early March, the ACF released a video and a report of their investigation into several multi-million dollar properties allegedly owned by Mr Medvedev.
According to their report, Mr Medvedev allegedly owns a number of properties hidden under the cover of charities owned by his close friends.
The report claims that the charities are not only ineffective, but are used to receive bribes, purchase yachts and vineyards, and build vast estates all over Russia.
“The problem has become lesser in recent times, public opinion polls testify to that”
-President Vladimir Putin
Last week’s rallies were called in response to ACF’s report and took place on the 17th anniversary of Mr Putin’s first day in power.
The documentary, “He’s not Dimon to you,” uses drone footage of the properties in question, and leaked emails from an account that Mr Navalny claims belongs to Mr Medvedev.
Mr Navalny cites evidence he believes connects the account to the Prime Minister.
ACF’s video documentary, “He’s not Dimon to you.”
Mr Medvedev’s spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations to reporters, but speaking to the Ekho of Moscow radio station, said the video had an “election campaign character.”
In 2016, Mr Navalny announced his intention to run in the 2018 presidential elections, against Mr Putin, who has been in power as either prime minister or president for 17 years.
Following Mr Navalny’s arrest, it’s unclear whether his presidential campaign will go ahead. As of yet, no official statement has been made.
It is possible that the Kremlin may not allow him on the ballot.
Mr Navalny is no stranger himself to controversy.
He has been arrested several times. In 2013, he was sentenced to five years in a corrective labour colony following a conviction of embezzlement, but was released a day after sentencing.
In fact, there have been dozens of charges brought against Mr Navalny, mostly for embezzlement, according to state authorities. These are largely disputed by Mr Navalny and his supporters.
In a statement on the ACF website, Mr Navalny said, “To fight corruption you need two main things — political competition and independent media. There are almost no independent media in Russia.”
The man without a face
Whether or not Mr Navalny is the man Vladimir Putin fears most is hard to say. He does, however, have a remarkable ability to generate a following whenever the Kremlin attempts to undermine him.
More and more people in Russia appear ready to question official state reports, and to challenge the sanctioned stories.
Even in the wake of his own corruption allegations, Mr Navalny was able to rally crowds of thousands, a number of whom physically tried to prevent his arrest during last week’s protests.
“To fight corruption you need two main things — political competition and independent media. There are almost no independent media in Russia”
– Alexei Navalny
Mr Navalny is young, charismatic and has a highly-developed public profile.
He communicates with his followers via his online blog through which he issues statements and organised the protests.
Not everyone sees Mr Navalny as a saviour. Many believe him to be a puppet of Western politics, or even a proponent of old-style socialism.
But when independent media is hard to come by, the state hold all the cards.
Mr Navalny is never shown or mentioned on state media.
In last week’s protests, a generation who had never known a Russia without Putin had the most prominent voice. It may be that these rallies will herald a new wave of political activism.
As unrest rises to the surface, the choice to omit Mr Navalny’s politics from state media may increase his legitimacy in the eyes of his supporters.
In turn, it marks him by implication as worthy of censorship; someone with a message and pull strong enough to warrant a fight.
In 2013, Mr Navalny came second in Moscow’s mayoral elections. Already, there is talk of more protests in the coming weeks. But, this time he is not an active organiser. His supporters are taking the lead.
Mr Navalny, it seems, is just getting started.