The Irish Times view on protests in Russia: Navalny’s J’accuse

The opposition figure’s populist, anti-corruption message has struck a chord

The weekend demonstrations in more than 100 Russian cities – some 40,000 participating in Moscow, where some 3,500 were arrested – saw a new generation of young activists protesting on a scale unseen in years against corruption in the Vladimir Putin regime. Informal polling suggested that in excess of a third had never protested before, and observers were drawing parallels with the events last year that shook the rule of Belarus's president Alexander Lukashenko.

The spark was the arrest of 44-year-old activist Alexei Navalny on his return from Germany, where he was recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he has claimed was ordered by the Kremlin. Navalny has touched a very raw nerve, releasing a two-hour documentary on Putin's alleged ill-gotten gains and the network of cronies surrounding him.

The documentary, viewed online 90 million times so far, charts the president's rise from minor KGB agent in Dresden – he would later head the agency's successor FSB – through the party's ranks in St Petersburg, where he was a key figure in the city administration and, Navalny says, began to amass a fortune that has made him one of the richest men in the world.

A web of contacts from schooldays, Dresden and St Petersburg provide him with the old pals’ oligarch network that surrounds him and feeds his voracious appetite for cash and luxury. Central to Navalny’s claim is a lavish Black Sea palace surrounded by vineyards which houses everything an aspiring tsar could want from an indoor hockey pitch to a casino, theatre and gym, all furnished with expensive Italian furniture, and guarded from land, sea and air by the FSB.

Putin declared on Sunday that it never “belongs to or ever belonged to me or my close relatives. Ever.”

Putin remains in control and the maverick Navalny has previously been sidelined. But his poisoning and daring return to Russia have raised his stature. His populist, anti-corruption message has struck a chord. Putin has reason to worry.