Putin's Problems Are Real — And It's Not Just Navalny
Russia may not be heading toward a full-blown revolution, at least not yet. But the current wave of protests shouldn't be dismissed either.
PARIS — This Time Is Different was the title of a book devoted to the financial and economic crisis of 2007-2008. Could the same be said about the current situation in Russia? Depends on who you ask.
On one extreme are those who say that the anti-Putin and Navalny liberation demonstrations are much ado about nothing, and that recent "filmed evidence" of the regime's corruption is neither a surprise nor shocking for the increasingly cynical Russian population, which accepts that to be in power is to get rich, and the more absolute the power, the greater the enrichment.
According to this interpretation, people see Putin as guaranteeing stability, and dismiss Navalny as just an "agent of the foreigner." If Lukashenko was able to stay in power in Belarus, it is obvious that Putin will do the same in Russia.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who see the current wave of demonstrations — in more than 110 cities, from Moscow to Vladivostok — as marking the first real cracking of power. They believe that these particular protests are the beginning of the end for Putin.
That may be taking things too far, at least for now. But there is a new political reality taking shape in Russia, one that is due to the meeting of three factors: Navalny's personality, President Joe Biden's election in the United States, and COVID-19.
The erosion of power applies to tyrannical regimes as well as to democratic systems.
For the first time, the opposition to Putin is embodied in a man who has demonstrated his courage, and whom the regime — his assassination attempt is proof of this — takes seriously. Navalny is taller, younger and more attractive and charismatic than Putin. By keeping him in prison, the regime risks making Navalny a contemporary version of Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist, human rights activist and 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Incidentally, I was present in Moscow at Sakharov's funeral, in December 1989, during a period that would prove to be the regime's twilight.
Navalny's emergence isn't, in other words, good news for Moscow. Neither is the election of Joe Biden, who unlike his predecessor, takes human rights and democracy seriously, putting Putin's Russia (and Xi Jinping's China) on the defensive.
While Navalny makes Putin appear "older," Biden makes him appear more caricatured, if not "old-fashioned" in his management of power. Washington in Biden's day is undoubtedly a more reliable and responsible partner for signing arms control treaties. But it is also a more formidable opponent because it is more professional and respectable.
Navlany appearing in court in Moscow on Feb. 5 — Photo: Babushkinsky District Court/TASS/ZUMA
Finally, there is the coronavirus. Periods of pandemic accentuate inequalities and make injustices less bearable. At a time when the poorest are the most affected, the spectacle of wealth spread out in all its excessiveness feeds anger that can lead to revolt.
The video about "Putin's Palace" on the Black Sea has gone viral, with more than 100 million views. It is clear that in legal and juridical terms, the property does not belong to the master of all Russia. There is also little doubt that it was built for his sole use. A masterpiece of immoderation and bad taste, "Putin's Palace" makes Trump's property in Mar-a-Lago, Florida look like a modest fisherman's hut!
True, Putin's Russia in 2021 is not the France of July 1789 or July 1830. Nor is it the Romania of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. And yet, the Russian regime is facing a real threat for the first time in just over 20 years. The erosion of power applies to tyrannical regimes as well as to democratic systems.
Faced with a complex and fluctuating situation, Europe and the United States must define a common position vis-à-vis Moscow. In doing so, they need to be careful not to reinforce the perception in Russia that Navalny is only the agent of the foreigner. The regime in power has become a master in its use of the nationalist card to hide, again and again, its mistakes and abuses. But an even bigger mistake would be to simply ignore the situation, to pretend that nothing is happening, or dismiss it as Russian internal affairs that are better left untouched.
Putin now intends to impress the new American president and European leaders by the spectacle of his diplomatic goodwill on almost all subjects. This is after he intensified provocations against the United States and Europe and attempted to expose the obsolescence of democratic systems, all when he felt in a position of strength.
A wind of revolution rose this morning.
Part and parcel with Putin's overtures is an implicit warning: It would be a pity if you missed such an opportunity for rapprochement and agreements by worrying about the fate of Navalny and democracy in Russia. True to the Soviet practice of yesterday, Putin feels that he can do everything to intervene in our electoral processes, but that any outside interference in his country is unacceptable.
The reality, though, is that the "abracadabrantesque" corruption that drives and defines his regime aren't just a problem for Russia, but for the world as a whole, especially for all those who, in one way or another, act not just for personal interest but in accordance with values.
"A wind of revolution rose this morning. It growls, it rumbles against Mazarin," 17th century French poet Paul Scarron wrote about the civil riots against Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV's first minister of state. In Russia, too, "A wind of revolution has risen." The protests aren't, at this point, a revolution, but they can lead to one, especially when feelings of injustice and anger eventually prevail over fear.
*Dominique Moisi is a regular columnist for Les Echos and special advisor to the Institut Montaigne.