Featured image: “File:Alexey Navalny’s meeting at Bolotnaya Square 2013-09-09 5075.jpg” by putnik is licensed under CC BY 3.0
The arrest and subsequent trial of anti-Putin activist Alexei Navalny prompted mass protests across Russia, garnering the support of tens of thousands of people in more than 100 cities and towns in Russia, with numbers only rising. Almost half are participating in protests for the first time – polls show that 42 per cent of respondents have never demonstrated before. It was mainly young people, aged 18-35, that took to the streets.
Thousands of these protesters have been arrested for participating in pro-Navalny demonstrations across the country. On January 31st, at least 5,100 protesters were detained nationwide. Videos showed many peaceful Moscow protesters walking and chanting Navalny’s name, only to be shoved into side streets and beaten by police. Riot police have since closed metro stations and taken over the main squares and crossroads. In Moscow, the apartments of Navalny’s allies were searched by police, with the occupants taken in for questioning over the protests.
Mr Navalny was arrested on his return from Germany last month, where he was being treated for Novichok poisoning that is suspected to have been ordered by Putin. Navalny was then tried for violating the terms of his 2014 suspended sentence and condemned to three years in prison. He had previously been exonerated of this charge by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Navalny called the sentence “one man’s hatred and fear. I mortally offended [Putin] by surviving. And then I committed an even more serious offence: I didn’t run and hide”. In an Instagram post from jail, he thanked his supporters, urging them to resist “intimidation” and encouraging them to continue the fight.
“They can only hold on to power, using it for their own enrichment, by relying on our fear. Instead, by fighting our fear, we can liberate our Motherland from the little band of thieves and occupiers. And we will do this”, Navalny added in the post.
Navalny was poisoned with Novichok whilst he was in Tomsk and became seriously ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. Novichok denotes a group of advanced nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s. Their main route of exposure is by inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through the skin. They act by blocking messages from the nerves to the muscles, causing a collapse of several bodily functions. According to Mr Navalny, the Federal Security Service had placed the Novichok in his underpants. Putin is thought to have used Novichok on his opponents in the past, an example being the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, former Russian military officer and double agent for the British intelligence agencies, and his daughter, Yulia.
The Kremlin has plans for several other ways to tarnish Navalny’s reputation. They aim to portray him as a foreign agent planted by the West to overthrow the Moscow regime, citing the attendance of ambassadors of Western countries at his sentencing as evidence. A new fraud case against Navalny is also in the works; this would accuse Navalny of stealing donations to his own anti-corruption foundation. Navalny’s demand for sanctions against Putin’s friends could also bring a charge of treason, with a potential sentence of up to 20 years.
However, it is clear Putin’s plans to ruin Navalny’s name are having the opposite effect and are actually undermining his own legitimacy. According to a poll carried out by Moscow-based independent pollster, the Levada Centre, the president is now trusted by only 29 percent of the population, a fall of 20 percent since his re-election in 2018.
While Navalny was the flame that ignited the protests, the scope of people’s grievances goes far beyond this. Unemployment in Russia has shot up to its highest level since 2012. The economy is suffering its worst recession in 11 years, having been damaged both due to the pandemic and the drop in oil demand. The financial support offered by the government, in the form of a support package, amounted to just 4 percent of GDP, which is less than a tenth of the help provided by the US, Italy and Germany.
Research carried out by the Levada Centre shows that people are most dissatisfied with the level of economic inequality in the country; around 45 per cent of respondents blamed Putin for “failing to ensure an equitable distribution of income in the interests of ordinary people”. In Russia, the top 10 percent of the country own 83 percent of the country’s wealth, making it the most unequal of the world’s largest economies.
The dissatisfaction of Russians with the economic inequality prevailing in the country was perhaps only worsened by allegations that Putin owns an opulent palace on the Black Sea. A video released by Alexei Navalny showing a luxurious property near Gelendzhik, a town in southern Russia, reached 93 million views on YouTube in a week. The palace’s features apparently include a port, a vineyard, a church, a casino. “It is a separate state within Russia … And in this, there is a single, irreplaceable tsar: Putin”, Navalny said in the video. The palace was allegedly financed by members of Putin’s inner circle, with illicit funds of $1.3 billion. Putin has denied these claims, saying “nothing listed there has ever belonged to me or my close relatives”.
This ties into allegations of corruption against Putin. The president has recently passed a series of constitutional amendments that would enable him to stay in power until 2036. This move caused protests last year, with critics calling the referendum fraudulent. In the past two decades, Putin has passed legislation limiting the freedom to protest, dismantling independent media, and increasing censorship.
A shift in media consumption is part of the cause of the increasing dissatisfaction brewing across Russia. While Putin’s government dominates state TV and media, young Russians get their news and information from the internet, where Navalny is preferred instead.
Navalny’s treatment drew condemnation from the European Union, the UK government, the US, and Europe’s human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe. Russia has expelled three diplomats sent from Germany, Sweden and Poland for joining protests in support of Navalny, declaring that the three took part in “illegal demonstrations”. This move was criticized by the home countries of the diplomats. The expulsions were announced just a few hours after EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, met Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow. Mr Borrell said he “strongly condemned this decision and rejected the allegations that they conducted activities incompatible with their status as foreign diplomats”. Given the timing, it’s hard not to wonder if the expulsions were merely intended as a message to the West, and a reaffirmation of Russia’s independence against foreign interference.
The expulsions were met with retaliation, as Germany, Sweden and Poland have each expelled a Russian diplomat on Monday, 8th February. This series of moves highlight the erosion of trust between Russia and Western Europe. Swedish foreign minister, Ann Linde, said that the decision was a “clear response to the unacceptable decision to expel a Swedish diplomat who was only performing his duties”. Germany said that the diplomat who had been expelled out of Moscow was “carrying out his task of reporting on developments on the spot in a legal fashion”. Poland’s foreign ministry declared it ordered the expulsion of a member of Russia’s consulate “in accordance with the principle of reciprocity and in coordination with Germany and Sweden”.
Josep Borrell has reiterated the bloc’s appeal for Navalny’s release, and said that “While we fully respect Russian sovereignty … the European Union considers issues related to the rule of law, human rights, civil society and political freedom are central to our common future”. Joe Biden has called for Navalny’s release “immediately and without condition”, and has described his case as being “politically motivated”.
The protests caused by Navalny seem to have started a real movement across Russia, a sign that the tides may be turning. It is clear that Putin regards Navalny and his supporters as a real threat. However, whether the momentum generated will be enough to translate these acts of dissidence into real change remains to be seen.