A detained woman looks out of a police bus in downtown Moscow, Russia, Sunday, March 26, 2017. Russia's leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his supporters aim to hold anti-corruption demonstrations throughout Russia. But authorities are denying permission and police have warned they won't be responsible for "negative consequences" or unsanctioned gatherings. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
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For five years, Russia’s opposition movement had seemed largely moribund. On Sunday, it burst back into life. From Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, thousands marched in the biggest demonstrations since the 2011-2012 winter protests over flawed parliamentary elections and Vladimir Putin’s decision to return for a third term as president.

There were two vital differences this time. Instead of being concentrated in Moscow and the second city of St Petersburg, the demonstrations attracted significant numbers in some 80 cities, often in defiance of police bans. Large numbers of young people — not a big force in 2011-2012 — took part. With the rallies held on the 17th anniversary of Mr Putin’s first presidential poll victory, many of the protesters cannot recall a time when he was not Russia’s paramount leader.

The protests had a specific target: elite corruption. Despite the president’s apparently lofty approval ratings since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, they show deep discontent in Russian society over top-level sleaze.

A video by Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist, alleging prime minister Dmitry Medvedev has amassed a lavish property portfolio beyond his official means, acted as a lightning rod. So did the lack of real response to the video, which was viewed 11.8m times.

Such hard-hitting investigations and savvy use of social media have enabled the formidable Mr Navalny to politicise young Russians. Mr Navalny has also shown that he has an effective national network. Little wonder authorities detained staff and removed computers from his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Unlike the largely middle-class protests in 2011, Sunday’s rallies included many less well-off citizens, angry over falling living standards after several years of economic stagnation. Post-Crimea euphoria seems to be wearing off.

That has taken the Kremlin by surprise, as reflected in the ham-fisted official response. Scenes of peaceful protesters dragged away by helmeted riot police in Moscow on Sunday echoed those a day earlier in more overtly dictatorial Belarus, whose strongman leader, Alexander Lukashenko, is also facing his biggest protests for years.

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. Mr Putin has created a 400,000-strong National Guard and seems ready to go further down the Lukashenko route if required.

But the resurgent protest movement poses a substantial challenge one year before a presidential election that had been expected to anoint Mr Putin to a fourth presidential term. The Kremlin faces a dilemma over whether to allow Mr Navalny to take part. Doing so would risk giving him an expanded platform and denting the president’s prestige should Mr Navalny perform well — even if Mr Putin’s overwhelming incumbent’s advantages would probably ensure his victory.

Barring the opposition leader, however, would risk making the Kremlin look scared. Another non-competitive procession could also dent Mr Putin’s electoral legitimacy.

These matters are for Russia to resolve. 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.

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