The sun comes up again over a Russia that has been changed by the nationwide protests on January 23 as up to an estimated 100,000 people answered anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s call to demonstrate in the biggest protests Russia has seen since 2011.
But has anything changed? Did Navalny start a revolution? Will the same amount of people hit the streets next week, as the organisers are calling for? Has a Belarusian style protest started that will continue for months and lead to the ouster of Russian President Vladimir Putin?
One thing that can be said immediately is that Navalny has been promoted. Putin’s claim last month that he is a “nobody” is clearly no longer true, if it ever was.
Navalny is now a national celebrity in the way he was not before. Ordinary Russians respect his anti-corruption work, but until now did not take him seriously as a politician.
Despite the dramatic footage of street fighting and the shocking brutality of the OMON – an officer kicked an old woman in the stomach in St Petersburg, who is now in hospital suffering from concussion as well – these protests are probably not enough to radicalise the Russian population and start a revolution similar to those in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Georgia.
The key question to ask is: are the Russian people are now prepared to put their demands and anger before their personal liberty and safety. Put more simply: are average people willing to take a beating by the police for what they believe in?
There is a calculus to violence that the Kremlin understands very well. Some violence will intimidate the population, as most people are not prepared to literally risk their necks for a change in the political system. But if the authorities go too far then that changes, and once inflamed by moral outrage the revolutionary movement becomes unstoppable, as Ukraine has demonstrated twice.
In March 2015 I met up with Nikolai Alekseev, one of the leaders of the Russian gay rights movement who came directly from a court hearing where he had just been fined RUB15,000 ($50) for organising an unsanctioned rally. We went to join the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was on the street handing out his newly released economic manifesto that laid out an alternative to Putin’s regime. Nemtsov was killed shortly afterwards.
Alekseev had been fighting a running battle with then-mayor Yuri Luzhkov, trying to get permission for a gay pride march in Moscow that the homophobic mayor had been blocking for years.
“The city has always refused permission on the basis that the venue we wanted to use was already booked,” Alekseev told me in a café near the Chistye Prudy metro station in the heart of Moscow. “So this year at the first session of the court we put in an application for every day of the year as soon as the court opened. They still refused to give permission.”
Eventually Alekseev did manage to organise a small rally by publically announcing one location, but secretly organising the rally in another that was shared by SMS amongst participants. The gay pride activists marched as the police raced across the city to the real location to break up the “meeting,” as rallies are called in Russian. Alekseev was arrested and the fine he paid was the result.
“Lots of people support us, but the problem is the general public have been intimidated by the state. Putin was on TV last month and said anyone that goes to unauthorised rallies faces a “beating by police truncheons.” That is totally illegal. He can’t threaten the people with violence under the constitution,” Alekseev explained. “But until the people are willing to take a beating for their beliefs they won’t participate in mass rallies.”
Have Russians reached the point where they will bleed for their beliefs? That is the big question.
The videos shared on social media from the weekend show a new level of violence. (See our reports here and here with several examples.) Ordinary Russians have engaged in punch-ups with the OMON clad in full body armour. That is new.
However, while these videos have shocked the rest of the world and are seen by many commentators as likely to outrage the Russians to the point they will rise up against the authorities, the Kremlin is not unhappy about them, as they also act as a deterrent that will prevent more Russians joining the protests next week. The trick is to get the level of violence right: some, but not too much.
“For the Kremlin, it depends how it has decided to play the day, which in turn will tell us much about how far we are witnessing an ‘authoritarian turn’ overall following the poisoning, which def went beyond past practice,” bne IntelliNews contributor Mark Galeotti said in a long thread on the Navalny protests yesterday. “[The Kremlin] can focus on managing the day: still enough arrests to signal the risks in participation, but essentially hope[s] to ride out the protest moment. This is what they have largely done in the past…. I am not convinced Kremlin has deftness of touch and control to calibrate that kind of violence accurately without risking a kind of Bloody Sunday, + I suspect PrezAdmin feels the same.”
This is a delicate moment in Russia’s modern history. There is a very strong argument that the Kremlin should have done nothing and let the protests go ahead unchallenged in the hope that they quickly burn out.
In the last few years Russian civil society has become more active and the number of protests have grown, although they usually focus on local issues like the demolition of a park or the mismanagement of a smelly landfill. The propensity to protests with political demands is not particularly high at the moment and has fallen this year, while Putin has regained his popularity approval of 65% from before the 2020 crises.
Navalny’s previous political protests have attracted a few thousand people and are far less popular. However, after the arrest of the popular governor of Khabarovsk in the far east, Sergei Furgal, the political protests that followed went on for months, suggesting Russians are becoming more interested in politics, although that too was essentially a local issue.
So if the Kremlin is going to react it has to get the level of violence right: too brutal and the Kremlin will put a match to the touchpaper and could set off a social explosion; too soft and the protests will not stop. Team Navalny must have been hoping for a brutal response, as these were by far the largest protests his group has ever managed to organise. Navalny has deftly taken the initiative and the Kremlin has been forced into a series of heavy-handed errors. It has lost control of the narrative.
Many commentators believe the threat of jail – Navalny is facing 3.5 years from a previous conviction on fraud charges that was suspended and another 10 years from new charges – was designed to keep Navalny in Germany. But he has called the Kremlin’s bluff, and having threatened to arrest Navalny the Kremlin had to follow through on his return.
Then Navalny provoked the Kremlin again on the day after his arrest with his latest investigation into Putin’s alleged wealth: a two-hour documentary that has already garnered 50mn views.
And in the same week Navalny called for mass unauthorised demonstrations on January 23, which the Kremlin condemned as illegal and was then forced to send in the police to “uphold the law,” which was guaranteed to end in the scenes we have just witnessed.
The key part in this plan was the number of people that answered Navalny’s call. If his plan to hold weekly protests in the style of Belarus is to work, then a significant number of people needed to come out.
“For Team Navalny, it is about the numbers coming out, the spread of places they come out, and at least as important, what kind of people come out. Can they use it to demonstrate a broadening of their support base?” Galeotti tweeted. “They don’t need to reach Bolotnaya numbers to claim success, certainly not for a 1st day of protests: tens of thousands in Moscow is enough, esp if – as seems the case – they can also point to protests all across the country.”
The size of demonstrations on January 23 – 40,000 in Moscow alone according to Reuters and some 100,000 across the country according to reports – can already be called a huge success for Team Navalny.
But Navalny still has a limited appeal for the general public. Alekseev claimed that his cause has widespread support, but not enough people are willing to demonstrate to force the authorities to make a change. The last poll from the Levada Center puts Navalny's political support at around 2%, although his name recognition has clearly gone up now and the 50mn views of his “Putin’s Palace” video show he has caught the public’s attention.
In Belarus the weekend demonstrations regularly drew 100,000 people in a country of only 10mn, but Navalny's protest drew the same number in a country of 148mn. Protest in the Far East of Russia at the weekend are new, but protests in the European part of Russia, where 80% of the population live, were more muted. Still, even the smaller regional protests are significant, as protests are usually limited to Moscow and St Petersburg.
In contrast to Navalny, the opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has a much cleaner profile and won the trust of her people easily. She was “just a housewife”, and her motivation and her agenda were crystal clear: she stood in the disputed August presidential elections because her husband was jailed and she demands only three things: Lukashenko should step down; the political prisoners should be released; and fresh elections should be held. She has said explicitly she has no aspiration to take power for herself, or even her husband. She just wants her life back.
On the other hand, most Russians assume that Navalny wants to become president if Putin leaves. One of the legacies of the Soviet system is most Russians don't understand how anyone can just stand up and say “I want to be president;” political leaders have to be in some way “qualified” for power, to have come from some sort of organ of state. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu, far-right leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin all fare much better in trust polls than Navalny.
Despite a recent downturn in his popularity, Putin consistently outpolls Navalny by a wide margin, being trusted by 32% of respondents, and the preferred choice for president of 55%, according to the latest polls. However, Navalny did win 27% of the vote when he ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013 and nearly forced a second round of voting, which suggests his real popularity may be a bit higher: people rank him low in the popularity polls not because they don't like him, but simply because they believe he has no chance of ever being allowed to stand.
Another Levada poll taken in September, shortly after he was poisoned while campaigning in Siberia, asked respondents whether they approved of Navalny’s activities, a question only rarely posed in Levada’s polling. While 50% replied negatively, 20% said they did, by far Navalny’s strongest ever result in a public poll, reports the Moscow Times.
As a result, Navalny’s protests are unlikely to go as far as those in Belarus. He has scored a huge victory with the size of the protests on January 23, and the protests are likely to continue at a lower level, but not on the same scale as those across the border.
The Kremlin’s plan will be to contain these protests and try to avoid radicalising the population in the hope they will eventually fade away. But Navalny has succeeded in changing the game and the Kremlin will have to prepare for sustained social unrest well into the summer, as Navalny probably has more tricks up his sleeve – putting his wife Yulia Navalnaya up as a candidate for the Duma elections in September being the most obvious one.