On February 2, a court in Moscow sentenced Putin critic Alexy Navalny to two years and eight months in jail. Russia’s most prominent critic has inspired massive protests that have shaken the country, marking the most significant challenge to Putin’s rule to date. Accused of being a ‘western spy’, Navalny’s fate was sealed the moment he chose to return to Russia, after surviving an assassination attempt allegedly ordered by the Kremlin.
With his jailing, Putin hopes to end the months-long protests that are proving to be a huge challenge. While he has seen several large protests as both Prime Minister and President, he has managed to efficiently crush almost all of them. Yet, this time, there seems to be something different. Vladimir Putin wanted to crush dissent, but it looks like the jailing of Navalny has had the opposite effect.
This time, protestors are braving not just threats of jail and police brutality, but the COVID-19 pandemic to make their voices heard. Many have already been rounded up and jailed, but that hasn’t stopped protestors taking to the streets all over the country.
So what is it about Navalny that has brought so many to the streets? Has he really begun a movement that will change Russia as we know it?
The Rise of Alexy Navalny
Alexy Navalny first captured the attention of the public (and the government) in 2011 when he helped spark protests against then Prime Minister Putin. His Anti-Corruption Foundation the FBK began collecting reports of corruption from citizens, using it to fuel a call for change.
Navalny’s popularity set off alarm bells in the Kremlin, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, they have been trying to discredit him for years calling him a “western stooge”. However, that tactic has failed, which is what allegedly led the Kremlin to order the poisoning of Navalny.
In August 2020, Navalny was poisoned by the chemical agent Novichok. His team allege that the poisoning was carried out by the government, a claim that the Kremlin has denied multiple times. Navalny was airlifted from the Siberian city of Omsk to Berlin for treatment.
Despite being airlifted for a medical emergency, and having spent five months in a coma, prosecutors argued that it violated Navalny’s probation. The probation is in connection to a suspended sentence he received in 2014 for embezzlement. That is what forms the backbone for the case against Navalny, that led to his imprisonment.
A Contentious Battle in Court, and on the Streets
The court ruled against Navalny saying travelling to Germany was indeed a violation, and would thus lead to imprisonment. In his remarks in the courtroom, Navalny said – “I would like everyone to remember that the essence of this trial is to lock me up over a case in which I was already exonerated — a case that’s already been recognized as fabricated.”
As the drama played out inside the courtroom, outside thousands of angry and anxious protestors eagerly awaited the verdict. There was no doubt which way it would go, as a European diplomat told the Financial Times. “[The Kremlin] wants to send a message and the system must produce that message. The verdict was the only verdict allowed.”
Navalny used what could be his last public speech for the next three years to say what thousands of protestors outside couldn’t. His 15-minute passionate speech captured the attention of not just Russia, but the world.
I’m standing here, guarded by the police, and the National Guard is out there with half of Moscow cordoned off. All this because that small man in a bunker is losing his mind. He’s losing his mind because we proved and demonstrated that he isn’t buried in geopolitics; he’s busy holding meetings where he decides how to steal politicians’ underpants and smear them with chemical weapons to try to kill them.Alexa Nevalny
As the judge read the verdict, thousands marched into central Moscow. The response was swift. Video footage showed police in body armour hitting protestors with staves. According to reports, over 1,000 people have been detained so far in Moscow alone. According to Human Rights Watch, police have detained more than 3,700 people nationally. There have been multiple reports, videos and photos of police violence in what is supposedly Russia’s largest crackdown to date.
What makes these protests different is that unlike in the past, many of those on the streets are protesting for the first time. A poll conducted by a Russian organisation found that 59% of protestors were below 35 years of age. As noted by the Atlantic Council – “Until a few years ago, the eighteen to thirty-year-old demographic was viewed as the Kremlin’s most loyal and reliable group of supporters… but these attitudes have changed dramatically over the last two years.” This is in line with the global trend, where younger people are increasingly becoming politically active, with generational gaps becoming more apparent.
A Challenge for Putin
The police crackdown wasn’t just limited to protestors, many journalists were also assaulted and detained. Despite having press cards, jackets and armbands marking themselves as press, over 50 journalists were assaulted and detained. It represents the most violent and bold move by Putin to date, as he attempts to reestablish his authority in the country.
Despite international condemnation, there has been no change of heart from the Kremlin. It is clear that Putin sees Nevalny as a big threat, which is why how this plays out matters. Back in 2011, authorities were less reluctant to jail Navalny. But over the years, he has become too big to ignore.
Navalny is just one issue for Putin, who has spent the last few years overseeing massive reform in Russia to hold on to power. From constitutional reform to ending term limits, Putin is currently in the midst of consolidating power on a massive scale. Before the pandemic, he could do so without worrying about the economy. But now, COVID-19 has exposed massive gaps which Navalny has exploited.
Navalny’s movement has found common ground with the millions of Russians suffering economic hardships. William Partlett, writing for Stuff characterised it by saying “His jailing could galvanise Russians who want a form of politics no longer characterised by post-imperial nostalgia and a paranoid, siege mentality that constantly fears Western interference. Instead, they want to live in a country focused on building better schools, infrastructure and health care.”
Till date, there seemed to be little hope for Russians that things could change. Alexy Navalny has shown that is not the case. Despite having everything thrown at him, he managed to survive and stand up. His going to jail hasn’t the protests as Putin hoped, but seems to have given it a new lease of life. Now, there is a strong anti-Putin sentiment that is public. It will be seen both on the polls and the streets, which could be damning for Putin.
With Joe Biden now in the White House, there is a lot of uncertainty ahead. The west has been quick to condemn Russia, but so far no concrete action has been taken. That though could quickly change. Putin can no longer count on inaction from Washington to give him free rein.
In his first address to the US State Department, President Biden warned Russia “We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people, and we will be more effective in dealing with Russia when we work in coalition and coordination with other like-minded partners.”
It is very likely Biden could join the EU and the UK in imposing sanctions on Russia. Even without the US as partners, the sanctions by Europe have managed to dent the Russian economy enough for it to be felt. If the US adds new sanctions, the economic consequences could be severe enough for Putin to be forced to take action.
But before that, Putin will have to deal with the consequences of the protests domestically. A good example of the change in winds is the city of Nizhny Tagil, dubbed ‘Putingrad’ for its strong support for the President. Now, the city, like the rest of Russia, has seen a strong decline in support for Putin. Rising inflation coupled with limited resources and the pandemic has left many people worse off., they blame Putin for the economic hardships that have left millions struggling to make ends meet.
Alexy Navalny may no longer be a threat to the Kremlin, but the movement he built certainly will. A Carnegie Europe poll found that 41% of young Russians want Putin to step down. These cracks in Russian society are of significant concern, as they will be used as fuel by both Russians and the West to force change.
The organic nature of the protest and the willingness of people has made it clear change will be felt. If Putin’s current response is the benchmark, then Russians will certainly have to go much further. Hopefully, now that they have an ally in Washington, the added pressure will help. If Biden decides to sanction Russia, the economic hardships could be the perfect fuel for Navalny’s team. But the road to there is a long and dangerous one.