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Feb 15, 2021
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BESA Center: Navalny and Discontent in Russia

BESA Center: Navalny and Discontent in Russia

Photo: Petr Kovalev / TASS

Major protests recently held in Russia over the imprisonment of an opposition leader Alexey Navalny, can turn into a nationwide movement against the ruling political elite. The immediate causes of the massive demonstrations are Navalny’s poisoning and a series of videos of corruption schemes exposing the president himself. Vladimir Putin

However, other factors are the real driving force behind the protests. These include: anger over falling living standards; problems associated with the pandemic; restriction of political freedom and Putin’s decision to practically remain in power after 2024. While recent protests may have been motivated in part by earlier local movements – such as those in Moscow in the summer of 2019 or the regional protests that took place in 2019-2020 in Khabarovsk, Yekaterinburg and Shies – they differ in that they represent a new stage in the Russian public discontent.

The first indicator that these rallies are not similar (to the previous ones) is their size. In total, they were attended by almost 100,000 people, and in recent years they have become the largest manifestation of dissent in the country. The detention of 3,700 people significantly exceeds the number of arrests that took place during the wave of anti-Kremlin protests that shook Russia in 2011 and 2012.

Another indicator is the prevalence of protests. Residents of nearly 100 cities across the country took to the streets. Historically, Putin has taken advantage of Russian geography to prevent the spread of public discontent. Much has changed, however, as modern technology has made it possible to coordinate simultaneous protests across the vast territory of Russia.

For nearly a decade, Russian authorities have treated Alexei Navalny as a minor political headache. High-ranking officials even avoided calling him by his name – this is clearly a domineering form of behavior that in fact reflected the internal problem of the Russian ruling elite.

The way the Navalny problem was tackled showed that there are at least three different currents of thought in the Russian government about how to deal with him. If the leadership had been monolithic in their vision of this, then Navalny might not have been hounded at all. The decision to attempt on his life raised his status to the level of a national leader, although many Russian citizens do not agree with his political views.

Until recently, many of them had no idea who Alexei Navalny was, but now he is famous enough to pose a direct threat to the leadership. After being poisoned in Siberia and recuperating in Germany, Navalny became Russia’s second most important voice after Putin abroad. He became a politician with global reach.

Part of the impetus for the protests was the growing sentiment among the population against the regime, against the elites and against corruption. They have been accumulating for a long time and are not directly related to Navalny’s videos about the investigation of corruption. Russia is experiencing what many former Soviet states experienced in the 1990s and early 2000s – a struggle for more effective power, greater responsibility and accountability, transparency in government spending, and, above all, the ability to change power through elections.

Western observers who hope this discontent will spark a liberal movement may be disappointed. While some degree of liberal sentiment may be present, protests are not necessarily pro-Western or pro-democratic. The dominant force was not very young people. Crowds

included middle-aged, middle-class Russians – representatives of the urban post-industrial working class, working in the service sector or in office positions. These people are disappointed with the economic indicators of the authorities, the ruble exchange rate and inflation. Unsurprisingly, over 40% of these crowds protested for the first time.

Another novelty is that the crowds were openly targeting the Russian president. Given that discontent has become nationwide, this is a serious challenge to Putin and the entire regime. According to independent sociologist Levada *, many Russians still see Putin as indispensable, and his approval rating was almost 65% back in November 2020, but this support is primarily motivated by fear of the chaos that could erupt after his departure, not love for that person himself.

The memory of the stormy 1990s is still fresh, but it will become increasingly difficult for Russian power to play this card. The number of people who grew up under Putin is growing and they do not remember the post-Soviet era. Many of them want a higher standard of living and more effective government.

The harshness of the crackdown on protesters speaks of nervousness within the regime. On July 27, 2019, 1,373 people were detained. This was the largest number of protesters detained in years at the time. But during the “Navalny protests” almost 3,700 people were taken into custody. The scale of the problem was also highlighted by Putin’s surprising statement in which he denied that he owned the palace when he was directly asked about it during a videoconference.

These protests can lead to a deterioration in the government’s policy on freedom of speech. New regulations and laws are likely to be introduced as the crackdown on Navalny’s movement intensifies. Nevertheless, a new tradition of protest is being established, possibly influenced by foreign examples.

People’s revolutions have already been experienced by Russia’s neighbors. Russia, of course, is much larger, and the influence of smaller states should not be overestimated, but it would be a mistake to completely ignore this influence. In Belarus, the opposition has been trying for months to oust President Alexander Lukashenko, who won an election that many believe was rigged. During Putin’s rule, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan experienced revolutions.

Public discontent in Russia has become a matter of international relations. Russian leaders are forced to resist Western demands for Navalny’s release. For Russian leaders, the dilemma is that his release will embolden the protesters, but imprisoning him indefinitely could further radicalize them. While the existing government is unlikely to be seriously challenged in the near future, the collective protests represent a general deterioration in public attitudes toward power and are likely to continue across the country.

A source. Translation by Sergey Dukhanov


Author Emil Avdaliani – Emil Avdaliani – teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilya State University (Georgia). He worked for various international consulting companies, writes articles on the development of events in the military and political spheres in the post-Soviet space.

* ANO Levada-Center is included by the Ministry of Justice in the register of non-profit organizations performing the functions of a foreign agent.

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