After a week of high drama, the political situation in Russia is moving into a new, more radical phase. The Jan. 17 arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who had just landed in Moscow after recovering in Germany from a poisoning attack, came as Navalny released a viral YouTube video that exposed a vast palace President Vladimir Putin allegedly built for himself on $1.35 billion of kickbacks. The protests that followed were Russia's most widespread since the 1990s.
While Moscow was the focus, the demonstrations were notable for being national in scale, with people openly defying government warnings and taking to the streets by the thousands in 110 cities. From Vladivostok in the far east to Kaliningrad in the west, crowds chanted, "We are the power here," "Freedom to Navalny" and "Down with the tsar!" In the Siberian city of Yakutsk, protesters braved temperatures of -50 C.
Writing in Russia's leading liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the publication's political editor Kirill Martynov lauded what he sees as a movement in which Muscovites and those from regional cities finally have a common interest.
"When Moscow stirs, the regions usually remain indifferent, and vice versa — but not now," he wrote, arguing that people had made their voice heard not only for Navalny's freedom, but "because they see no other way of achieving justice in a country in which there are no courts and no elections."
The Kremlin insists that Washington was behind the demonstrations, and that most of the protesters were minors manipulated into participating by organizers via social media. State media echoed the government's claims and reported the behavior of police as "polite," despite widespread video footage of officers beating protesters with batons and violently detaining them, and in one case in St. Petersburg even kicking a middle-aged passer-by in the stomach as she asked why a protester was being arrested.
Navalny had called on Russians to go out onto the streets after being sentenced to 30 days of pre-trial custody on Jan. 18 in a court hearing held at a police station that the anti-corruption crusader declared illegal. In the wake of Navalny's recovery from a poisoning which investigative journalists say was carried out by the Russian secret services using a nerve agent, the authorities have changed tack by reopening a previous fraud case against him, alleging that he violated the terms of his parole. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2017 that the case was arbitrary and unlawful.
Lawyer and activist Lyubov Sobol, one of Navalny's key allies, announced on Tuesday that more protests were being planned for this weekend, despite the arrest of almost 4,000 participants in Saturday's protests. The authorities are hitting back: On Wednesday, police raided Sobol's apartment, detaining her for 48 hours after carrying out a search. Raids were also conducted in Navalny's apartment and the studios of his anti-corruption foundation.
Novaya Gazeta's Martynov warned that the standoff may be reaching a point of no return. "Society no longer has anywhere to retreat since the poisoning of Navalny. The siloviki [security structures] also have nowhere to retreat, having already convinced themselves of the effectiveness of their ‘tough scenario.' Beyond lies only The Hague."
If Navalny really was a nobody, why detain supporters who had gathered to welcome him home?
For years, Putin has sought to portray Navalny as a non-entity, refusing to use his name and describing his rival as an "unknown blogger." The Kremlin's clumsy response to the opposition leader's return from abroad publicly demonstrated the exact opposite: If Navalny really was a nobody, then why detain supporters who had gathered at Vnukovo airport to welcome him home? Why divert his plane to another airport and then arrest him at passport control, live in front of TV cameras?
His poisoning and subsequent return to Russia in defiance of threats to jail him have not only confirmed Navalny as Putin's most vocal critic, but also as a political figure of notable courage and global standing. He has seized the initiative, forcing the Kremlin into a series of strategic blunders that have only heightened a growing sense of public outrage among many Russians over widespread government corruption, lawlessness, declining living standards and a flatlining economy hit hard by Covid-19.
Putin's official popularity rating, 60%, while still relatively high compared to other world leaders, is at its lowest since 2012. The Kremlin has attempted to dismiss the video investigation into the opulent Black Sea palace, but it has racked up well over 90 million views, inflicting serious damage on the public's perception of him.
Over the last 20 years, Putin has built his reputation on a strongman approach that sees any sign of weakness as unforgivable. Navalny's direct challenge therefore puts the Russian leader in a difficult position. If the Kremlin wants to avoid appearing weak, it has little option but to double down, which is likely only to deepen social and economic instability and radicalize the opposition, further ratcheting up tension.
Analysts agree that another tightening of the screws is the likeliest response, though Russian media have cautioned against excessively harsh measures against protesters. Even the staunchly pro-Kremlin tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, while dismissive of Navalny, concluded that an overly heavy-handed response would be "a dead-end path."
He has become a powerful totem for the protest movement.
Indeed, faced with what is an existential challenge, the Kremlin may finally opt to abandon all pretense of democracy in order to keep hold of power, regardless of the costs in the global arena – Russia has shown time and again that it cares little about international censure. Commentators have been speculating for months that the authorities will stake their survival on a "Belarusian scenario" if things get too far out of hand.
Putin will have been keenly observing events across the border in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko has managed to cling to power despite months of protests after rigging presidential elections in his favor last August. Lukashenko has responded to discontent by closing borders, arresting his political rivals or forcing them into exile, launching an extensive campaign of repression and torture, and cutting dissenters off from state support.
With parliamentary elections due in September, some analysts have questioned Navalny's decision to return now, arguing that he was too hasty: He should have waited until the summer, the logic goes, in order to ensure a febrile political climate ahead of the elections. By returning now to certain imprisonment, the opposition leader risks losing touch with events that he now has limited power to influence.
Yet, in some sense it makes little difference whether Navalny is in a cell or at large – he has already achieved his aim: publicly humiliating Putin, undermining his legitimacy, and sparking a new wave of protests. And by voluntarily taking on the role of a prisoner of conscience, he has become a powerful totem for the protest movement.
Some liberals may be tempted to view Navalny as some kind of latter-day Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel. Still, the real significance of the new movement is that it has stirred millions of more conservative Russians: They might not be especially keen on Navalny himself, but they will never see Putin the same way again.
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