Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who returned to Russia last week after recovering in Berlin from an attempt on his life involving a military nerve agent, presented Russian President Vladimir Putin with a stark choice. Putin could bolster his grip on power by silencing Navalny, but further chip away at the remaining vestiges of the country’s democracy – or tolerate him at the risk of losing command of the country, if the opposition he led swelled.
The Russian president chose the former, jailing Navalny and setting off an avalanche. As many as 120,000 people took to the streets over the weekend. That’s not significantly more than have protested in recent years, but the tone of the protests was markedly different. Opposition supporters who once demanded the end of censorship, changes of policy on issues such as pensions, or more transparent election processes are now marching for an immediate end to Putin’s reign as well as Navalny’s release. They appear to feel that if they are to stop Russia’s final descent into the kind of iron-fisted dictatorship that exists in Belarus or China, the time to act is now – unless it is already too late. Either way, Russian politics has entered a dangerous phase.
The problem for Putin is that sharp-edged autocracy is not a good way to run a country: The harsher the crackdown, the more difficult it is to revert to a softer form of authoritarianism. And for all of the repression he has meted out, Putin has always allowed the opposition a degree of breathing room. But now he may have fallen fully into what some political scientists call a “repression trap,” which can be hard to escape.
Of course, there is nothing new about repression in Putin’s Russia. There have been numerous turning points in the long relationship between his Kremlin and the anti-authoritarian opposition: the stifling of independent television in 2001, the murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, of human rights activist Natalia Estemirova in 2009 and of politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the campaign against human rights groups beginning in 2004 (and their designation as “foreign agents” in 2012), and the revision of Russia’s constitution last year, allowing Putin himself to serve until 2036. Each time, the space for compromise and coexistence got narrower. Now, it feels to many Russians as though the middle ground has vanished entirely.
Gone, too, are the playful slogans of past waves of protest: “Don’t rock the boat, our rat is seasick,” (an allusion to Putin) – and the carnivalesque atmosphere of the 2011-2012 protests that first brought Navalny to real prominence. Repression has ramped up significantly since 2017, when Navalny and his supporters stopped waiting for permission to protest and started turning up wherever they pleased. In earlier years, Putin refrained from large-scale arrests, but repression has been on the rise since 2017, and there were nearly 4,000 detentions Saturday. Activists have gradually become inured to swinging batons – and an unusual number of protesters themselves came out swinging Saturday.
The intensification of repression and conflict may be a sign that Navalny’s return is going to plan. Heading back home was undoubtedly brave, perhaps foolhardy – and was clearly calculated for political effect. Navalny has always been an innovator, surrounding himself with bright, creative people who, among other things, helped to reinvent how electoral campaigns are run in Russia. His “smart voting” project, which used a combination of social networking and political coalition-building to support candidates most likely to take seats from the ruling United Russian party, was so successful that the Kremlin rewrote electoral laws to stymie it. With the intensification of authoritarianism, the task now is to innovate in the streets more than at the ballot box, breaking the existing mold of short waves of moderately sized protests that are harshly but effectively repressed. The challenge is huge, but in returning to Russia, it is a challenge that Navalny has accepted.
He has a ways to go. If Navalny had hoped that his return from Berlin – and his video “investigation” of a lavish palace allegedly owned by Putin – would galvanize a substantially broader anti-Putin coalition, he will have been disappointed. The protests were more intense, but they were not larger than in recent years, even if the confrontations with the police speaks to a new level of desperation.
Navalny may take greater solace from the fact that the Kremlin is displaying signs of desperation, too. After apparently trying and failing to kill him, Russian officials went to considerable lengths to convince him to stay away. Prison authorities threatened to convert his suspended sentence for fraud – a conviction overturned by the European Court for Human Rights but reinstated by Russian courts – into a three-and-a-half-year prison term. (This explains why Navalny was arrested when he landed in Moscow.) Criminal investigations have been launched into Navalny’s campaign organization. And he faces a potentially bankrupting libel claim from the catering magnate Evgeny Prigozhin, a Putin associate.
When he returned nonetheless, the government took extraordinary measures to prevent his supporters from rallying around him – diverting his plane in midair from one airport to another, arresting him before he could make it through border control, and conducting impromptu court hearings in the police station where he was being held. When protests were announced for Saturday, authorities sought to block messages coordinating them on social media and arrested activists across the country.
Perhaps most tellingly, the Kremlin has broken its own taboo on engaging directly with Navalny. While Putin still won’t say his name, he made a public show in a teleconference with university students Monday of denying that he owned the palace the opposition leader had publicized. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did the same at greater length, and parliamentarians met in the Duma to deliver a denunciation. All this had the unintended effect of giving Navalny more airtime than he has received before.
Putin’s attacks on Navalny have been unsparing. Navalny serves the interests of foreign governments, Putin says, and he compared Saturday’s protesters to terrorists. All of this suggests that he worries that Navalny’s support – which ranges between 5 and 20%, depending on who is asking the question and how – is only likely to grow, especially given that the national economic malaise is stretching into an eighth year. It’s therefore essential, in the government’s eyes, to confront the challenge head-on now.
But taking on Navalny and his supporters so directly has a cost: From now until his last day in office, every compromise by Putin will be viewed as a sign of weakness, inviting more resistance, and the street clashes are likely to get more violent. The resulting volatility will further undermine the economy and deepen poverty, sapping Putin’s support. Even under those circumstances, Putin can maintain his grip on Russia – but it will be a very different Russia.
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Greene is a reader in Russian politics and director of the Russia Institute at King’s College, London. He is co-author of “Putin v. the People.”
Robertson is professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and director of its Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European studies. He is co-author of “Putin v. the People.”