Foreign Policy

Navalny's return has thrown Putin off stability

On January 23, Russia saw the largest and most widespread protests in the country in nearly a decade. The Russians who came out to strike out on President Vladimir Putin's regime responded to calls for demonstrations by Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who had triumphantly returned to Russia to lead the protests after his previous poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent.

When the day came, the protests that Navalny and his team had called for erupted in at least 120 cities across the length and breadth of the Russian Federation. Navalny has shown the authorities, the Russian people and the world that he has Russian citizens who are ready to march and protest for him and, if necessary, to be arrested by riot police. This was a victory, if not a decisive one, for the opposition, not least because it showed the disorder and chaos of the regime's response.

Of course, there have been no protests with this level of militancy and vivacity in Russia for nearly a decade, and they point to a new phase in the conflict between the opposition and the authorities. The demonstrations combined large numbers of demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg with an unexpected turnout, especially for the government, in peripheral towns and regions, where residents do not normally come out of Moscow to protest. The gloomy atmosphere of the protests in the middle of winter signaled widespread social dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. The new direction suggests a prolonged showdown between the Kremlin and a likely tightening of repressive measures taken by the state. On the other hand, there is an unexpected new spirit of protest in Russia. On-site coverage and several studies and surveys carried out during the rallies showed that at least a third of the protesters had been on the streets for the first time in their lives.

Unlike many previous Russian opposition leaders, Navalny now cannot be accused of being a general without an army at the head. He encountered large crowds in Russia's frozen January weather, even in sub-zero Siberian cities. However, it will be difficult to transform this dynamic into a permanent political infrastructure that conforms to the regime.

While the vast majority of the protests were peaceful, there were some acts of violence, largely initiated by the authorities. Numerous videos showed riot police indiscriminately attacking demonstrators. Other videos showed intrepid demonstrators who violently retaliated against Russian security forces. Until this weekend, Russian demonstrators had not resisted, let alone fought en masse in demonstrations against the special forces of the OMON riot police.

Russian social media feeds showing videos of riot police hitting protesters with batons. A video of a 10-year-old boy who was arrested by a burly policeman as the surrounding protesters yelled, "He's just a kid!" caused widespread outrage. The process of incarceration and violence was accidental, with a video clip garnering tremendous attention on social media showing a young woman crying and asking a police officer not to arrest her boyfriend. A physically imposing young man playfully steps out of the crowd and asks, “Do you just have to set an arrest rate, brother? Take me instead. "The young policeman readily agrees to the offer and the crowd claps and cheers as the man is led away. The scene was a powerful demonstration of the arbitrariness of the law in Putin's Russia – something that is known to everyone, but rarely so directly is pointed out.

Although preliminary numbers vary, it seems certain that several thousand protesters have been detained across the country – rights groups and analysts are still in the process of tabulating the results for the number of protesters held, but the figure is likely to be around 3,500. The political risk for the Kremlin is that events will develop in the same direction as in neighboring Belarus, which at the time was experiencing a month-long stalemate between the government and the opposition. As in Belarus, there may be too many protesters to arrest them – but the government is too entrenched to overthrow them. The damage had already been done.

The government response has nowhere been as smooth as normal. Navalny's video exposure of Putin's alleged "palace", a huge and tasteless building, pinpointed his enemy. Putin was embarrassed to say he did not have the time to watch Navalny's 90-minute investigation, which was viewed more than 100 million times just over a week after it was posted on YouTube. In a legalistically worded denial, which the video labeled brainwashing, Putin vigorously denied that either he or his "close relatives" "ever owned the property." Based on the details of Shell's complex corporate structure, which Navalny's investigation into ownership of the palace revealed, this would be technically true enough.

The emphasis on corruption was a wise decision by Navalny and his team to focus on the anger at inequality in Russia.

On Wednesday, Putin reacted obliquely to Navalny's investigation into his wealth by addressing the issue of income inequality in a speech he gave on Zoom at the annual World Economic Forum. Putin warned of a possible "war of all against all". Meanwhile, Russian police raided the homes of Navalny's family and close associates.

The protests certainly won't stop Navalny from being sentenced to prison, although the exact length of the Kremlin's prison sentence will send a signal of Putin's intentions. A shorter sentence is seen as a signal for a reassuring possible compromise with the opposition. But the Russian leaders, who are critical of the optics of not looking weak and not giving in to street protests in their decisions, even if they are very interested in polls, will no doubt double in size if repressed in the near future. Opposition leaders and Navalny officials have called for further protests this weekend as the government prepares to take a formal decision on Navalny’s prison sentence.

A deep feeling that a certain sclerotic brittleness afflicts Putin's government is hard to avoid, and the protests are certainly a bad sign for the Kremlin as it prepares for the September parliamentary elections. The Kremlin's enduring goal of getting Putin's Russia United party to a direct two-thirds majority seems unlikely if events unfold in this way, and the government may very well conclude that it needs to vote more explicitly or cheat more systematically than she would like to. This, of course, would continue the process of deteriorating its public legitimacy. The Kremlin now finds itself in the usual authoritarian dilemma of whether to risk accelerating the cycle of political polarization by escalating systemic violence or risking increased protests and a revealed cascade of preferences by signaling weakness. The return from Navalny to Moscow turned all previous calculations on all sides on their head.

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