Inside Story

Navalny’s long game

January’s protests might be less damaging to Putin than a slow leaching away of legitimacy

Graeme Gill 2 February 2021 1676 words

“Freedom to political prisoners! It’s not 1937”: protesters supporting opposition activist Alexei Navalny in central Moscow on Sunday. Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Sipa USA

Speculation about whether political change is on the horizon in Russia has intensified in recent days, stimulated by the demonstrations in Khabarovsk in the second half of 2020 and, more importantly, the nationwide protests since Alexei Navalny’s arrest on 17 January. Of these, the greater threat is usually seen to be the latter. But do those demonstrations pose a real threat to Vladimir Putin’s rule? Or will they turn out to be a temporary show of dissent with no discernible political implications?

Navalny, a long-time critic of Putin, first made his name as a blogger who brought to light corruption throughout the country, including among those at the highest political levels. He has also sought to enter politics directly: as the figurehead leader of the 2011–12 fraudulent elections demonstrations, as a candidate for the Moscow mayoralty in 2013, and as a candidate for president in 2018. He has focused his criticisms on Putin, whom he accuses of being corrupt. For his efforts, he has frequently been arrested, has been held for short periods when he has sought to attend demonstrations, has been subject to criminal charges for fraud (which he denies), and was found guilty of embezzlement and given a five-year suspended sentence. His brother has also been arrested and incarcerated.

Most recently, while travelling in Siberia, Navalny was poisoned and nearly died. After being taken to a Russian hospital in Omsk in a coma, he was airlifted to Berlin — at the insistence of his wife and supporters — four days later. Navalny and his supporters claim he was poisoned by an agent of the Russian security services, the FSB, acting on the orders of Vladimir Putin; the German doctors say that the poisoning agent was a type of novichok, which is said to be available only to the Russian government. He appears to have made a full recovery.

Some aspects of that episode are curious, but I will not go into them here. What is important for Russia’s political trajectory is that Navalny’s supporters both within that country and in the West believe that the Russian government and Putin himself were responsible for the attempt on his life.

In an immediate sense, the Navalny episode poses three different sorts of challenge to Putin’s rule: direct action from the streets, delegitimisation, and increased economic hardship.

The potency of the street demonstrations depends partly on the strength of Navalny’s support. We don’t know for certain what proportion of Russians support him and what he is doing, and how many of them would be willing to risk engaging in protest activity. Supporters of Navalny always exaggerate the size of the crowds he attracts and the extent of his support, while opponents understate both; estimates of the crowd in Moscow on 23 January ranged from 4000 to 40,000 (with a lower reported number on 31 January).

What we do know is that when Navalny stood on the ballot for Moscow mayor in 2013 he officially received 27.2 per cent of the vote — and if the claims about falsification are accurate, presumably more. Given the sympathy generated by his poisoning, it is likely that his support has grown since then. Regardless, a solid core of support exists in the capital, but there is no evidence that this even approaches half of the capital’s populace. And it isn’t clear that even this level of support can be replicated throughout the country. We just don’t know.

Overall support is one thing, strategic support another. A loss of control in the streets of the capital is politically much more significant for the government than in other parts of the country. Election statistics show that the popular vote for Putin and the forces aligned with him tends to be lower in Moscow than elsewhere, so the capital would seem to be fertile ground for the Navalny forces. This is especially so because Navalny has become a lightning rod for the expression of broader grievances; many at the protests appear more motivated by the call to remove Putin than support for Navalny.

Since the colour revolutions in the early 2000s — and especially the “Maidan revolution” in Ukraine in 2014 — Putin has shown himself to be highly sensitive to anti-regime mobilisation. Over the past decade and a half a whole series of measures has been introduced to limit the capacity of the citizenry to protest and demonstrate. Perhaps most importantly, the demonstrations over the past two weekends (with more promised) were met with significant force from the police. The early introduction of force is new and clearly designed to deter people from continuing to take to the streets.

But even if we assume such demonstrations continue, do they pose an existential threat to the regime? Studies of regime change show that many more regimes fall as a result of division and conflict within the ruling group than in response to mass mobilisation. While the group around Putin stays united and the coercive arms of the state — military, security and police forces — remain loyal, the regime is likely to see off this challenge. That seems to be the lesson of Belarus: president Alexander Lukashenko has retained power despite months of popular protest because he still has the support of the ruling elite and its coercive apparatus.

The second immediate challenge is that of delegitimisation, of which Navalny’s movement supplies three potential sources. One is that the regime’s treatment of the demonstrators erodes the social contract — which swaps passivity for material welfare — underpinning Putin’s regime. That contract is already under pressure because of the economic slowdown, and an image of the regime turning on its citizens could test it even more.

Another source of potential delegitimisation arises from Navalny’s continuing campaign against Putin as corrupt. This hit a new height last week when Navalny’s organisation released a video claiming that a sumptuous palace on the Black Sea coast was built for Putin. Putin has denied that the palace belongs to him (the wording has been careful, and ownership has since been claimed by businessman and long-time Putin friend Arkady Rotenberg), but the video has had massive exposure through YouTube. The danger for Putin is clear: when Navalny released a similar video claiming to document evidence of the corrupt and luxurious lifestyle of prime minister Dmitri Medvedev, Medvedev’s public approval ratings plummeted.

The other source of potential delegitimisation is Navalny’s challenge to the idea that no alternative exists to Vladimir Putin as Russian leader. If his projection as a potential leader with gravitas were to take hold, the popular reluctance to oppose Putin may be considerably weakened. For this to work, Navalny would need to come up with a more substantial policy program and live down some of the public positions he has espoused in the past. Following the election of Donald Trump, who is to say this is impossible?

The third immediate challenge is increased economic hardship. There has been talk within both the United States and the European Union about the imposition of further sanctions on Russia in response to the Navalny arrest. Even before Covid-19, existing sanctions were affecting the country’s economic performance; expanded, they would presumably do further damage.

But intensified sanctions would also buttress one of the themes Putin has used to consolidate his rule: Russia is in a battle with the West. With the Biden administration yet to articulate a clear Russian strategy, the ratcheting up of sanctions would get any possible reset of relations off to a poor start. And it isn’t clear that this would have any effect on the regime’s policy towards Navalny; it would simply strengthen Putin’s argument about inveterate Western opposition and the consequent need for a strong leader to stand up to them.

But the greatest challenge posed by Navalny may only become manifest during the elections for the State Duma (the parliament) in September this year. One of Navalny’s successes lies in constructing a nationwide network of organisations to help voters cast their ballots against the ruling pro-Putin party, United Russia. Like the level of Navalny’s popular support, the dimensions of this network are unclear, but it has undoubtedly had some success in regional elections in different parts of the country.

The emergence of this network parallels the decline of United Russia, in terms of both its popular support as measured by opinion polls and, it seems, its capacity to act as an effective and efficient electoral machine. The party relies fundamentally on the support of Putin-aligned regional officials, something Putin may have tried to shore up with last year’s change to the constitution, which enables him to run for another term in 2024. By preventing his becoming a lame duck, the amendment may have been designed to deter officials from transferring their allegiance to someone who would be around after Putin left in 2024.

For some time, observers have been suggesting that United Russia is not the electoral machine it once was because of wavering regional officials. If the party is less able to get out the vote and the Navalny machine is active in the area, electoral support for United Russia could plummet. And that could lead to manipulation of the election campaign and falsification of the ballot to ensure United Russia is victorious, something which — as the 2011 and 2012 demonstrations showed — can bring people onto the streets in greater numbers than have been evident over the past two weekends.

No one knows where the situation would lead if September’s election is seen as fraudulent and many more protesters take to the streets. Would it lead to splits among the ruling group, or to sections of the coercive arms of the state deserting those rulers for the demonstrating citizenry? Would it make the immediate challenges outlined above more potent? If any of these were to eventuate, the possibility of regime change would increase. And this means that the key to regime change probably lies more in the medium-term consequences of the work of the Navalny machine than in the demonstrations we have thus far seen. •