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Russia in 2021: Will Protest Lead to Change?

The dramatic return to Russia—and subsequent jailing—of the opposition campaigner, Alexei Navalny, has led to street protests of a kind unseen for a decade—and rarely seen at all during the twenty-one years since Vladimir Putin rose to the summit of Russian power.

Navalny’s imprisonment is certainly a solution of sorts to the problem he poses to Putin—but how much of a threat do the protesters represent to the Russian leader’s authority?

Navalny seems at his most effective either when leading street demonstrations, or creating digital content designed to embarrass the Russian leader and senior members of his administration.

Navalny was imprisoned for failing to observe the conditions of an earlier conviction that carried a suspended sentence. He has always insisted that charge, of embezzlement, was false, and politically motivated.

While his occasional court appearances may give him brief moments in the public eye, there is no doubt that his effectiveness as a political actor has been greatly reduced by his jail sentence.

The timing works well for the Kremlin. Russia is due to hold parliamentary elections in September. The unswervingly pro-Putin ‘United Russia’ party currently holds 335 seats in the 450-seat assembly. Anything other than a renewed majority for United Russia is highly unlikely—but the Kremlin will not want to take any chances.

Even if Navalny’s movement does not have the opportunity to mount a major challenge at the ballot box, having him out campaigning in the streets and public squares of the world’s biggest country carried with it the risk that his message would be heard more widely. That’s much harder from a prison cell.

Navalny himself knew that was where he would end up when he decided to return to Russia in January. He flew back from Germany, where he had been receiving medical treatment after suffering what medical staff there concluded was poisoning with a nerve agent.

Navalny has blamed the attack on the Russian security services (and an investigation by the Bellingcat website supported that claim). The Russian authorities have denied any involvement.

His courage in returning to Russia, rather than staying abroad, inspired thousands to brave Russia’s famously harsh winter temperatures to demonstrate demanding his release.

Many of them ended up behind bars, too. The sentences handed out were in many cases relatively short—perhaps 15 days—but some demonstrators were jailed simply for taking part in the protest. Longer term consequences such as loss of employment, or university places, may deter others from going out on the streets.

So in the medium term, Putin’s power looks secure. The security forces are strong, and seem loyal to the administration. They have harsher measures in reserve, and appear willing to use them. Even after protesters had been beaten with police clubs, and dragged off to jail, one Kremlin source described the authorities’ response as ‘just a warm-up,’ in remarks quoted by Reuters on February 4th.

The longer term is less clear. In 2020, Putin oversaw the changing of the Russian constitution. He could now theoretically stay in power until 2036. By that time he would be 83 years old. Putin’s popularity since he was first elected to lead Russia in 2000 has rested on two main pillars. First, on the fact that he presided over a time of growing prosperity and social stability after the chaotic decade that followed the collapse of communism in 1991. Second, on a newly assertive Russia that annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and intervened decisively in the Syrian civil war.

Now Russia’s economy—like those the world over—is suffering the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Economic hardship may bring renewed appetite for political protest. More military campaigns abroad are unlikely to serve to satisfy people angered by empty pockets. The state may need to come up with cash to keep them happy.

In short, while the Kremlin can probably contain the present wave of unrest, and wait for it to pass, new ideas will be needed for the longer term.

Written by ©James Rodgers

- twitter @jmacrodgers

Dr. James Rodgers is the author of Assignment Moscow: Reporting on Russia From Lenin to Putin (I.B. Tauris, 2020). He is Reader in International Journalism at City, University of London and a former BBC correspondent in Moscow.

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