Navalny and Political Protest in Putin’s Russia Part II
5: Kremlin response
Who was behind it? Western sources point to the Russian intelligence service FSB. Not surprisingly, however, Russian authorities denied that they had anything to do with the case. Putin himself has dismissed it all by saying that if they wanted to remove Navalny, they would have made sure to do the job properly .
Russian authorities had probably imagined that Navalny would remain in exile in the West after he was discharged from the hospital. Many other prominent Russian critics of the regime have chosen this in recent years. But Navalny did not finish challenging Putin.
In mid-January, he boarded a plane to Moscow, followed by a pair of representatives of the international press: Navalny was ready for a showdown with Putin.
The Kremlin’s response was swift and brutal. Navalny was stopped at passport control and immediately taken into custody, charged with breach of the duty to report he was imposed in connection with the conditional sentence from 2014. He had not reported from where he was while in an artificial coma at the hospital in Berlin.
The arrest led to demonstrations and marches across Russia. Estimates of exactly how many people participated differ: while Navalny’s supporters reported 40,000 protesters in Moscow on January 23, the authorities claimed that there were only 4,000. On a national basis, an estimated 100,000 people participated that day. With more than 10,000 people arrested in just two weekends, Navalny’s staff chose to temporarily stop further demonstrations.
6: Can Navalny succeed?
When Navalny was brought to justice on February 2, the conditional sentence was not surprisingly changed to unconditional, and Navalny will have to spend the next 2.5 years in prison. The verdict was met with protests from Western leaders demanding immediate release and an investigation into the poisoning attempt.
Some drew comparisons with freedom fighters such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela . The truth is, however, that Navalny is first and foremost a politician – he is more concerned with political impact than appearing as a moral guiding star. Navalny is pragmatic – and populist .
Authorities, for their part, have tried to silence Navalny by denying him coverage in state-controlled media, and Putin has consistently refrained from mentioning Navalny by name , partly to cast doubt on his personal integrity: Is he really a corruption hunter , or fronts? he an attempt at regime change supported by foreign powers?
Navalny is and will be a controversial figure, not least because of his previous affiliation with the Russian nationalist movement. The fact that he never publicly distanced himself from statements he made at the time, such as the comparison of migrants with cockroaches , led Amnesty International to remove Navalny from the list of prisoners of conscience .
In the press, he is portrayed as everything from Western liberals, via persecuted freedom fighters to right-wing extremist radicals. And despite the widespread demonstrations earlier this year, almost half of the population believe it was right to imprison Navalny , only a scant 30 percent say it was wrong.
7: Elections in September
The next test of the opposition’s strength will be the parliamentary elections in September. This year, there is extra uncertainty associated with the outcome due to the pandemic. Russia has so far registered more than 4.7 million corona infections – the fifth most in the world after the United States, India, Brazil and France.
According to Findjobdescriptions, Russia was the first country in the world to approve a vaccine, the Russian-developed Sputnik V , but the roll-out of the vaccination program has been slow. As in the rest of Europe, there is thus considerable frustration over the corona situation – which in combination with economic downturns and weakened living standards can be reflected in the election result.
The election is also seen as a test of Putin’s popularity before the presidential election in 2024. Putin has ruled Russia for over 20 years now, but in 2024 it should really be over. Then, according to the constitution, Putin had to step down and hand over power to another. However, last summer, in the midst of the pandemic, Russian authorities conducted a referendum that opens the door for Putin to sit until 2036.
8: Has Putin ridden the storm?
It may seem as if the Kremlin has regained control. Navalny is in prison and his doctors fear he will die . Navalny’s anti-corruption organization and the regional network of election campaign staffs have been accused of extremism , and will in all likelihood be shut down by the authorities. And the attempt to create new life in the campaign with a new mass demonstration at the end of April was far from successful: Navalny’s staff announced that more than 460,000 had announced that they would take part, but only a fraction showed up on a national basis.
Research on regime change in authoritarian states shows that many more regimes fall as a result of division and conflict within the political elite than due to mass mobilization. As long as the circle around Putin and the coercive force (police, security forces and defense) remains loyal, the regime will not be significantly shaken by even widespread protests.
However, there is reason to believe that neither Navalny nor Putin are particularly pleased with developments in recent months. Navalny had probably hoped for broader and more sustained mobilization, while the Kremlin, for its part, has had to resort to harsh methods and – many would say – excessive use of force to quell the protests. This could lead to further unrest.
The mobilization surrounding the arrest of Navalny has shown that there is a bedrock of discontent. Navalny’s return served as a catalyst for pent-up frustration: many of the protesters taking to the streets in January were not primarily concerned with expressing support for Navalny, but with ordinary Russians’ concerns about economic and social developments . Imprisoning Navalny did not solve any of these fundamental challenges.