Since 17 January, more than 10,000 people have been arrested by the Russian authorities for taking part in demonstrations and political actions related to the Navalny case. This significant deployment of silovikis (law enforcement agencies) may seem impressive at first glance. But what does such use of repressive forces mean? Is the Kremlin that intimidated by the blogger-politician and what does he represent? Has Navalny become Putin’s nemesis?

The purpose of this article is to question the status of Navalny in today’s Russia and to put into perspective the real changes that the political opponent can bring to the country’s politics.

What does Navalny represent?

The founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), who has legal training, has a rather singular political background. Alexei Navalny began his political career online, before engaging in a more active offline political life since the 2010s. This ability to switch and engage between the two worlds is particularly important in shaping his political communication, especially with younger, more connected and more liberal-minded audiences. Despite everything, his return in Russia was necessary to become a credible actor in Russian politics. Indeed, the risk by staying in Germany would have been to become a marginalised political activist, like many others who sought exile. Politics cannot be carried solely online if one wishes to have a lasting impact on domestic politics.

On the other hand, his political image has already been well shaped by the state media. Portrayed as a foreign agent, or manipulated by foreign agents, Navalny has now an image of an activist pursuing a policy coordinated by foreign actors, threatening Russia’s stability. This may seem rather anecdotal, but this discourse can be particularly effective, especially among a certain part of the population who still strongly supports Putin and his policies.

Moreover, according to the recent polls conducted by the Levada Center, Navalny is far from representing a martyr or a saviour for the Russian people. As reported by the poll centre, those who disapprove of Navalny (50 percent) are far more numerous than those who approve of him (20 percent). Coupled with this lack of popularity within the Russian society, his accession to power seems to be a very utopian project. In fact, the last elections he was able to participate in were the municipal elections of Moscow in 2013 where he obtained nearly a third of the votes. Since then, the political opponent has not been able to run and, according to many Russian political scientists, will most likely never be able to accede to presidential power[1].

But what do these protests represent then? And why has the Kremlin deployed such repressive apparatus? These recent events need to be approached in a broader way.

First of all, these demonstrations are not likely to become particularly violent. They are not intended to take Putin’s dvarets (palace) or the Kremlin by force. Nor are they are particularly impressive in terms of number of participants, especially when compared to those that took place recently in 2017, also caused by the release of one of FBK’s videos denouncing the corrupt nature of the upper echelons of the state[2].

To understand the real impact of these latest demonstrations, it must be understood that Putin bases his legitimacy above all on the support he has in the more remote regions, in the “deep Russia”, the trust of the narod (Russian people). Thus, these recent protests are particularly interesting in geographical terms. Indeed, to see big cities such as Moscow or St. Petersburg demonstrating is not really surprising. But in January other cities with a less liberal tradition took part in the demonstrations. Is it really significant that a smaller city such as Vladivostok or Murmansk are mobilising? Actually yes, because it directly affects Putin’s legitimacy reflected by his support from the narod, and thus greatly affects his image, especially among his close circle and the Russian elites.

What are the reactions of Westerners to the Navalny affair and other repressions worth?

Although Amnesty International used the term “prisoner of conscience” following Navalny’s imprisonment, his title has been withdrawn since, because of past statements meeting criteria for hate speech. Although this decision has since been supplemented by European and American sanctions, the question of their impact on Putin and his inner circle arises as usual.

In a country where the increase in poverty is striking, only strong hatred towards the system that privileges the elites and pushes the middle class deeper and deeper into poverty since 2014 can be forceful or threatening. Indeed, the economic fragility of the country has a huge impact on popular discontent and the ability of the Russians to mobilise. With an economy already heavily impacted by the COVID19 crisis (falling oil prices, and therefore a sharp drop in the rouble and Russian spending power), the Kremlin probably will find it quite difficult to withstand an additional complication in the economic sector.

Thus, one of the most effective means of pressure that could be put in place by Westerners would be to stop the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is already well under way. In addition to the various power games and decisions that are already beginning to revolve around the project, it is essential to put this into perspective with the upcoming German elections next September. Indeed, with the possible coming to power of the green party, the future of Nord Stream 2 may become even more uncertain.

So what can we expect?

First of all it will be necessary to keep a close eye on the legislative elections of the Duma that will take place next September. Indeed, the last elections date back to 2016 and were still strongly impacted by the euphoria linked to the annexation of Crimea. Moreover, the Kremlin should not underestimate the strength of “smart voting” put forward by Navalny and his team or simply the fact of voting for everything but the party in power, i.e., in pure opposition to United Russia.

In reality, an overthrow from bottom to top is quite implausible in Russia. What is more likely to happen is an implosion from within the ruling elites. According to Alex Gubaev and Arkady Ortovsky, when the legitimacy of the leader collapses, the games of power and politics come to life again. We can therefore expect Putin’s inner circle to engage in a political battle for power, a struggle in which each stakeholder will want to grab their share of the cake. Thus, if Putin’s legitimacy is particularly affected, we can expect profound changes within the Russian silovikis, bureaucracy and elites.

Admittedly, Navalny counter-attacked Russia’s secret services[3] with force and has since surely become the FSB’s number one enemy. But it definitely cannot be said that, today, Putin considers him as his personal nemesis. Nevertheless, the demonstrations linked to his arrest should be read in a more global context, taking into account in particular the deterioration of the country’s economic situation, and thus the increase in popular dissatisfaction and its ability to mobilise against the increasingly authoritarian government. Overall, these social events could provoke a crisis of legitimacy for Putin’s system causing an implosion of power from within the Russian elite.

[1] His accession to power is also to be put into perspective in relation to both his mental and physical health following his future three and a half years of imprisonment in the Vladimir oblast labour camp, IK-2, particularly known for its practices of torture and other violations of prisoners’ rights.

[2] In 2017 the Russian documentary « Don’t call him Dimon » released by the FBK detailled alleged corruption by Dimitry Medvedev who was Prime Minister of Russia at the time. In 2020, it is the documentary about Putin’s palace that ignited the flames and encouraged the population to demonstrate against an increasingly corrupt system.

[3] With the help of Bellingcat, Navalny posted a video in December 2020 where he managed to get a 45-minute confession from an FSB agent in charge of his poisoning, when posing as one of his superiors.


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