Massive Protest in RUSSIA – Protesters demand release of Putin critic Alexei Navalny #UPSC #IAS
Opposition leaders expect repression to intensify but prepare for protracted struggle
“Who needs it?” This is how Russian President Vladimir Putin put it at a December press conference when asked about opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who survived an assassination attempt and was arrested in Moscow last month after returning from medical treatment in Germany.
After that, two weekends in a row, protests were held in the country, which became the largest since 2011. In a sense, Putin himself answered his own question by violently breaking up the demonstrations and imprisoning his most famous critic..
But does Navalny pose a serious threat to Putin?
Former British ambassador to Moscow, Andrew Wood, believes that most of Putin’s important decisions over the past twenty years in power are dictated by fear of losing control. The diplomat considers this fear to be the main reason for the constitutional change, which allowed the former KGB officer to remain in power for many years..
And the fear only intensifies. As Wood noted in an interview with British research group Chatham House, “Navalny is in prison, and Putin is under siege. Navalny’s return from Berlin to Moscow on January 17 this year caused an explosion. Putin’s transition to a direct dictatorship, legalized in 2020, is now under serious question, “the diplomat said..
Wood notes the unexpected scale and geographic reach of the protests that swept across 11 time zones in the Russian Federation.
This year marks 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin has more than once called a “tragedy.” The disintegration of the USSR took place rapidly, leaving the Kremlin lagging behind. According to Western diplomats, for Putin and his inner circle, this is a haunting reminder of how quickly an authoritarian state can disintegrate..
The owner and editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Konstantin Remchukov, notes that Kremlin officials are also discussing the 1917 revolution among themselves and the question of whether Tsar Nicholas II could have extended his rule if it had been tougher.
According to Remchukov, the Kremlin came to the conclusion that the tsar had doomed himself to death by showing weakness.
Last year’s constitutional amendment, which gave Putin the opportunity to remain in power until 2036, does not seem to instill in the Kremlin more confidence in the future, despite the fact that the reform was supported by 79% of Russians who voted..
But Remchukov and other seasoned observers doubt that Navalny and his political allies can weaken Putin’s grip in the near future. The expert points to the gap between political activists and the general population.
Speaking at a virtual conference organized by the Center for National Interests, a Washington-based research organization, Remchukov said ordinary people may sympathize with protesters, but prefer to focus on their own affairs..
According to Remchukov, the real threat to Putin is related to the economy and how long the Russian president will remain in power depends on its state. “The economic issue is the most serious political factor. If there is no economic growth, Putin will have problems for him, “he said..
Other observers also believe that in an unfavorable economic situation, ordinary Russians may become more susceptible to revelations by the opposition about the corruption of the ruling elite..
Anti-Kremlin activists have stumped in the past, trying to broaden their political base and persuade more middle-class members to join the fight against the Russian leadership. In 2012, anti-Putin demonstrations gradually faded away. The same thing happened in 2019, when tens of thousands of activists began to hold regular rallies in Moscow to protest the falsification of elections to the Moscow City Duma..
Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky also seems to believe that the fight between Putin and his political opponents will drag on for a long time, although in an interview with the Times of London on Saturday he expressed the view that Russia is in the “final stage of dictatorship.”.
Putin is especially popular with older Russians who remember the economic and political turmoil of the 1990s when their savings disappeared overnight. However, as Khodorkovsky noted, the death rate will shrink their ranks, and the Kremlin is doing little to attract support from Russians under 40. Unlike older people, they do not get news from state television, but from the still uncontrolled Internet..
Meanwhile, the repression is only intensifying, Khodorkovsky said. Most Western diplomats agree that, for lack of an alternative, the Kremlin is likely to tighten the screws again. According to them, the Kremlin crossed the line with the attempt on Navalny’s life, in which the oppositionist himself and Western governments blamed Moscow. Putin’s political opponents are likely to see any relaxation as an excuse to step up efforts, and this could raise doubts among the security forces, which have so far remained firmly loyal to the Kremlin..
But there is no consensus among experienced observers about the timing and logic of the assassination attempt on Navalny. “Persecution by the state makes him not just a political fighter, but also a moral hero,” said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center research team. He adds: “Conflict is not just a fight with brute force; there is also moral strength. And right now, this moral force is on the side of the protesters. “.
Unrest in neighboring Belarus, rocked since August by massive protests against the authoritarian rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, may have heightened Kremlin fears of Navalny and prompted a decision to get rid of him ahead of September’s parliamentary elections and subsequent presidential elections in 2024..
“It may have been opportunism,” David Kramer, who served as assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, told VOA in a recent interview..
The elections could set the stage for Russian authoritarianism for the next decade, and the Kremlin will want to ensure that the ruling United Russia party, which has dominated the Duma since 2007, maintains its position..
For Putin and his political opponents, preparations for September are the next stage in a difficult and dangerous struggle for dominance. An opinion poll last week showed that Putin’s overall approval rating has dropped by just one point since November to 64 percent. It may delight the Kremlin and disappoint the opposition, but the protagonists are also tracking trends, and Putin’s popularity among youth is plummeting..
Navalny and his allies are determined to promote their Smart Vote campaign to undermine the ruling party. And when Navalny is sent to a correctional colony and deprived of the opportunity to communicate with the outside world, this will not be so easy..
The head of Navalny’s network of regional headquarters, Leonid Volkov, said last week that the opposition is now focused on elections as much as campaigning for the release of Navalny, and further major protests have been postponed until spring. Ending the mass demonstrations will allow the opposition to reorganize while many of the key activists remain in custody and consider how to win over more members of the apolitical majority to their side.