It is not surprising that a certain part of the Russian public reacted so energetically to the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, going out to mass protests for two weekends in a row before his team changed tactics. However, in the end, the protests were less related to Navalny, and more to the frustrations of young Russians and the urban middle class, which have been under pressure from 2014.
The main question is whether Navalny’s team can take advantage of the country’s growing socio-economic problems before the government redirects it to some less threatening directions.
The regime’s strategy so far has been to react typically brutally, just like during the last big demonstrations in the summer of 2019. Authorities are also arguing that Navalny is not an “anti-corruption crusader”, but the leader of a revolution sponsored by foreign organizations, the Moscow Times writes.
This repression is the way in which the authorities are telling everyone who takes to the streets that they will be forced to pay the price and that the price will increase. Authorities say: “So you want a revolution of dignity in the Ukrainian style? First you need to be ready to go through a certain humiliation.” .
Navalny has a problem presenting the idea of dignity as the main trigger for protests, because Vladimir Putin has already instilled among Russians the idea that dignity is an expression of resistance to the West. That narrative goes in his favor when he presents Navalny as a tool of the West, the “Moscow Times” estimates.
The Kremlin is quite skilled in using this tactic, because it knows how it affects people’s behavior, especially at a time when most Russians are quite apathetic and depoliticized. When the government makes it clear that it is ready to use violence against peaceful protesters, then it “strikes” at the already existing way of thinking that the protests may not lead to real changes in society.
The Kremlin is counting on that reaction and wants to create a public feeling that any protest movement will be shut down, just like the others before it. Then even people who are pressured by problems will opt for what seems to them to be completely rational behavior and will stay away from politics.
While assumptions are widespread outside Russia that Navalny was accepted at home as the leader of the opposition, the data available so far tell a different story. The level of support for Navalny has not changed – only about 20% of the population is in favor of him. It seems that Navalny may have overestimated the readiness of ordinary people to support him.
Just like Putin, Navalny may be living in an information bubble. He and his team generate great media attention, viral content and attract a huge number of viewers to anti-corruption videos. But this popularity does not turn into active support outside of social networks. The reasons for this are numerous. One of them is that there is a huge inertia in Russian society. Most people feel that the regime is not on the verge of collapse and that mass street protests are unlikely to hasten the end of the Putin era.
Navalny is very successful in reaching out to young Russians, but the Russian population is generally old with a small proportion of young people. Navalny does not have much experience in attracting the support of the majority voting population made up of middle-aged and elderly people.
Another factor that is currently acting against Navalny is that the Russian government has directed most of its aid to its main electorate, and not to the type of people who took to the streets in support of Navalny.
Finally, the Russian authorities did not impose too strict measures, avoided the collapse of the health system and created an effective vaccine. In this context, the usual message of the Russian opposition – “let’s change our ways and live like people in the West” – sounds less convincing than usual.
None of this means that the Kremlin is not afraid of Navalny or will not do its best to discourage his potential supporters. He will. The Kremlin is all too aware that electoral behavior in countries like Russia can be unpredictable. The biggest Russian political event in 2021 is the elections for the Duma in September. Despite all its tools and tricks, the Kremlin can sometimes be surprised by the impact of protests on voting.
Navalny’s team perfectly understands that, as things stand, Putin cannot win the election. That may be part of the reason why they said that they would move from street protests to diplomatic efforts to release Navalny. There are signs that this goal is more ambitious than it appears and that these diplomatic efforts will not be limited to the release of Navalny.
In the end, what Navalny’s team is trying to do is convince both the Russians and the world that he is the only legitimate opponent of Putin and that his success is the best guarantee for Russia’s future democratization. According to this logic, the transfer of power to any person other than Navalny would not be sufficient. However, it is too early to say that the entire Russian society is ready to support that proposal.
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