Russia has erupted into widespread protests in the past week after the arrest of Alexei Navalny. The crackdown on the protests and the arrest of Navalny in itself gives the impression that he has become a significant threat to Putin. The current protests also show Navalny’s support across Russia and how resentment towards Putin’s regime has built up, perhaps finally reaching its breaking point.
Alexei Navalny is described by the BBC as an ‘anti-corruption campaigner’ who ‘has long been the most prominent face of Russian opposition to President Vladimir Putin’. His widespread support is strongest amongst the younger generation, but the growing size of the protests suggest that it does not solely come from this demographic. Navalny’s supporters are Russians who are hopeful of a different future for Russia, one which reduces the widespread corruption and leads to a more democratic state.
Alexei Navalny flew home on 17 January and was arrested immediately, sentenced to 30 days in jail. In a video from the courtroom, he spoke to his followers claiming that he was being sentenced on a ‘fabricated case’ which was ‘aimed at silencing him’. While Navalny was in prison a YouTube video was released by the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) which showed a huge palace the Foundation claimed belonged to President Putin, encouraging protesters further.
In his article in the Financial Times Gideon Rachman wrote ‘whether Mr Navalny ultimately succeeds or fails, he now represents the most dangerous threat that Mr Putin has faced in the two decades since he took power’, and that in itself is a huge achievement. With hindsight this moment could be studied as a watershed moment in Russia’s history. Headlines in the media are certainly suggesting that there has been a shift which has not been seen in years. The New York Times labelled the protests Russia’s ‘Biggest Dissent in Years’.
Russia has a long history of suppression. Putin’s regime has been no different. The BBC reported chants of “Down with the Tsar” coming from the crowds in St Petersburg. Also, reporting that over 5000 people had been detained in 86 cities across Russia according to a monitoring group as of 31st January 2021. Those detained included Mr Navalny’s wife, Yulia, and his top aide, Lyuboc Sobol. The detainment of so many people emphasise the threat Putin’s government fears in the protests and from Navalny. Rachman closes his article with this same argument; ‘beneath the tough exterior, the underlying fragility of President Putin’s regime is once again apparent.’
The US State Department condemned the “harsh tactics” which were used by the authorities when dealing with the protests, continuing by saying that “The United States will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners in defence of human rights – whether in Russia or wherever they come under threat.” This response from the newly sworn in President Joe Biden sets the tone for his stance towards Russia, compared to his predecessor who took a much more relaxed approach to Putin’s leadership choices. The US was later accused of “gross interference” in Russia’s internal affairs by Russian foreign ministry after their condemnation.
It is worth considering how and why Putin has managed to remain unchallenged, or simply undefeated, for so long. In the past, Navalny has accused the Kremlin of attacking him; in July 2019 he was taken from jail to hospital due to a suspected poisoning and once again in August 2020 when he was suspectedly poisoned with Novichok nerve agent. Navalny’s suspicion that the poisoning came from the Kremlin harks back to previous Russian history where opposition to absolute rulers were done away with subtly and then not so subtly. The Kremlin dismissed the accusations that President Putin had sanctioned Alexei Navalny’s poisoning in August 2020. Their spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “We can’t take such accusations seriously. They absolutely cannot be true. They’re more like ‘empty noise’, so we don’t intend to take them seriously.”
It is often commented on that previous critics to Putin have been silenced in suspicious circumstances. Boris Nemstov’s murder in 2015 received a lot of attention, a 2015 Guardian article dubbed him ‘the most prominent politician to be killed during Putin’s 15-year rule over Russia’. Six years on and there seems to have been no real change, Alexei Navalny was campaigning against Putin then and his battle still remains to be won. The 2015 Guardian article was entitled ‘Alexei Navalny: Russian opposition is not deterred by Boris Nemtsov murder’, revealing that Navalny’s outspoken political view is not new, creating doubts that these protests will not lead to any real change.
The death of Boris Nemstov was reported on widely at the time and Nemstov’s daughter accused Putin of being “politically responsible” for her father’s death, although there was no evidence that Putin was responsible for the murder. Nemstov’s anti-Putin position did lead to speculation.
In 2018 the Salisbury poisonings also created suspicion around Putin when the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with the same nerve agent doctors in Berlin suspected Navalny had been poisoned with. The Kremlin denied any involvement in this poisoning as well.
However, how far does it actually help to speculate and accuse the Kremlin and President Putin if these attacks on Putin oppositionists are widely known about, but no action has been taken.
Anti-Putin sentiment is not new, but these protests seem more persistent, with President Putin and the Kremlin’s crackdown only giving the protesters more support from outside Russia. Although Navalny is still imprisoned, his calls for a change continue in the voices of his supporters throughout the streets of Russia, yet whether they will succeed remains unclear.
Header image credit: ft times