Thousands of people across Russia’s 11 time zones took to the streets on January 23 to protest against the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, braving the winter cold, the pandemic, and the very real threat of police brutality and incarceration. The event opens a long protest season in the run-up to parliamentary elections in September which are turning into a plebiscite on the legitimacy of President Vladimir Putin’s two-decade rule, whether he rigs them or not.
The protests took place just a week after Navalny’s daring return to Russia. In August, he was rushed to a hospital in Germany after being poisoned with a nerve agent and stayed there several months to recover. Before departing from Germany, Navalny took part in an investigation into his poisoning (mainly led by British-based investigative group Bellingcat) and even had a long telephone conversation with one of the alleged assassins.
Navalny is now under arrest, charged with violating his suspended sentence by leaving for Germany and staying there a few months. The conviction for which he received the suspended sentence was pronounced unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights.
It increasingly seems that the Russian opposition leader has become Putin’s main rival, if not yet for the nation’s leadership, then at least for the status of the world’s best-known Russian. His newly acquired international fame made a joke out of the pro-Kremlin media’s policy to refer to him as just a “blogger” and Putin’s own refusal to call him by name.
Having indeed started as an anti-corruption blogger over a decade ago, Navalny was Russia’s first opposition figure who managed to create an extremely efficient nationwide network of supporters, many in their twenties or even teens.
In a country mired by political apathy and pervasive cynicism, he managed to inspire millions by conducting groundbreaking investigations into the astonishing corruption of Putin’s entourage and presenting them in easy-to-grasp YouTube videos filled with his trademark irony. By getting arrested upon arrival from Germany, Navalny made the Kremlin look both weak and vengeful.
One may interpret the decision to detain him as a sign of convulsive fear, but there is a pragmatic side to it, too. The most hardcore part of Putin’s constituency might be in fact enjoying scenes of Navalny’s mistreatment.
Talk shows on Kremlin-linked TV channels anchored by people like Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitry Kiselev, who take an almost sadistic pleasure in observing Navalny’s ordeal, have a sizeable audience. Kiselev even went as far as spending a night in the hotel room in Tomsk where Navalny’s poisoning likely took place – just to mock those outraged by the attempted murder.
But Navalny has his hardcore supporters and a growing audience, too. His latest investigation focusing on a lavish palace Putin allegedly built for himself on the Black Sea coast had 25 million views on YouTube within 24 hours of its release on January 19 and by January 23, had reached a staggering 70 million.
Today, it seems the Russian society is divided into three unequal parts. Two minorities represent the staunch supporters of Navalny and Putin and a majority in the middle which is comprised of people whose support of the Russian president is tentative and pragmatic. These are people who stick with the crowd and who are always very attentive to the general mood in the country.
That means they may change their political preferences in a one-off event when opposition to the current leadership reaches a critical mass. This is what happened in 1991, when a democratic revolution in Moscow led to the collapse of the entire Soviet state. An attempt by communist hardliners to stage a military coup led to a massive backlash, which resulted in the downfall of the entire regime.
More recently, in 2020 a very similar abrupt shift happened in Belarus, where people suddenly rose up against their dictatorial president, Alexander Lukashenko, with the majority joining opposition-led protests and resistance. Lukashenko is still holding tight, although he has clearly lost legitimacy.
It is this kind of shift Navalny is hoping to precipitate when he calls for people to stage protests. He is probably not expecting immediate success. Rather he is building momentum for the hot phase of the Duma election campaign in the spring and summer, when COVID-19 fears and the cold weather will abate, bringing even more people to the streets.
Although many are inspired by Navalny’s fearlessness, it is going to be an uphill battle. Millions of Putin’s conditional supporters have good reasons to believe that they might lose more than they would gain in the event of his fall. This is dictated by their experiences in the 1990s and their understanding of regional politics today.
Putin’s regime provides for modestly good standards of living – on par with poorer EU countries and much higher than in Ukraine or Georgia, the two supposed models of pro-West reforms in the post-Soviet space.
Ukraine, which lived through turbulent times after a revolution and a Russian military attack in 2014, remains a potent scarecrow for Russians. On the one hand, its Maidan revolution has failed to bring down the oligarchic system or, as many call, it – the mafia state. On the other, Putin’s intervention in Ukraine clearly showed to what lengths the regime is prepared to go when it comes to suppressing a freedom movement.
The prospect of political strife in Russia raises fears of the country’s disintegration accompanied by armed conflicts with neighbours or domestic insurgencies. Many Russians also suspected that the unsympathetic or outright hostile West would be cheering centrifugal forces that would rip the country apart, just like in Ukraine.
The West is completely oblivious to the enormity of the challenge the world will face, when Russia, with its arsenal of nuclear and other deadly weapons, its millions of security personnel trained to fight and kill, inevitably enters a period of unrest due to its broken system of democratic transfer of power. Worst of all, it has no positive agenda for the Russian population, as it had for people in other Eastern European countries, when they were welcomed into the European Union and NATO.
The hawkish rhetoric, emanating particularly out of Washington, makes it seem like the West would rather see Russia turn into an alienated Eurasian wasteland surrounded by a cordon sanitaire of hostile nationalist regimes than into a flourishing democracy. Such a prospect would discourage even the most liberal-minded Russians from challenging Putin’s rule.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.