Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is showing no signs of loosening his iron rule in the wake of country-wide protests against the effort to kill opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Navalny’s subsequent jailing and the corruption endemic under the Russian leader’s rule.
On the contrary, arrests that started during and continued since last Saturday’s demonstrations now number more than 4,000. Navalny remains jailed after his return from hospitalization and convalescence in Germany. He faces up to three and a half years imprisonment on charges of violating a previous suspended jail sentence deal. In his support, backers have called for new demonstrations on Sunday.
In the meantime, police arrested Navalny’s brother Oleg, a move seen as putting pressure on Navalny to go into exile, in case he is released from jail. Top aides of the dissident politician have also been detained.
Putin has threatened to fine social media outlets that post messages encouraging demonstrations. It is obvious why Putin is attacking that autonomous media segment: not only did many Internet users attend pro-Navalny protests that broke out across Russia’s eleven time zones, but a two-hour documentary detailing Putin-related sources of Russian corruption and the construction of a humongous palace for him on the Black Sea garnered more than 98 million YouTube viewers.
Meanwhile, state-dominated television called Navalny supporters “political pedophiles” who encourage clueless children to protest Putin’s rule. The regime also revived an old tried-and-true standby to provoke nationalistic feeling: it’s all the work of foreign intelligence agencies.
There’s no need for head-scratching about Putin’s fears. He has long been apprehensive about the kind of upheavals that upended pro-Moscow governments in Ukraine in 2004 and 2013 and which threatens the quarter-century rule of Alexander Lukashenko in next-door Belarus.
So, what does the immediate future hold? Russian observers and journalists that I have talked to don’t think that Putin will let Navalny out of jail and certainly not before parliamentary elections scheduled for this September. Recent regional elections have exposed a decline in Putin’s United Russia party, which dominates Russian politics through the combination of suppression of opposition and a compliant media. Putin certainly does not want Navalny on the loose in the long run-up to presidential elections in 2024; trying to poison him with the nerve agent Novichok was simply a short-cut solution.
As for the public displays of discontent, the Kremlin hopes they will peter out, as have past anti-Putin eruptions.
There remains a question of which power pockets in Russia might toy with the idea that Putin’s time is up. The powerful elite in Russia includes the Federal Security Service (FSB), heir to the KGB; the presidential administration, made up of people long close to Putin, plus newcomers; the secretive armed forces chiefs of staff; and the wealthy energy and banking oligarchy, which, though put in place and maintained by Putin, might be unnerved by mass opposition to their patron’s misrule.
That’s a variegated crew in the ship of state to turn around. There may simply be too many contending agendas to reach any kind of consensus for getting rid of Putin and establishing a personal or institutional replacement. For now, barring major dramatics, the trail toward a post-Putin Russia is a way off.
Some reasons to get rid of Navalny: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/19/opinions/navalny-putin-russia-arrest-bociurkiw/index.html
Putin’s learning curve: https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/26/putin-navalny-russia-protests-lessons-belarus/
Russia and Belorussia, joined at the hip: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/protest-mood-spreads-from-belarus-to-russia-as-calls-grow-for-post-soviet-change/
Upcoming votes: https://21votes.com/russia-elections/
A Who’s Who of political elite in Russia: https://www.marshallcenter.org/en/publications/security-insights/political-elite-under-putin-0