oDR: Analysis

Surviving Putin: what’s next for Russian protests after Navalny’s sentencing?

With the opposition leader imprisoned, the future rests on organising skill and the protest mood.

Thomas Rowley
3 February 2021, 11.05am
St Petersburg, Sunday
SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

“The reason for all this is the hate and fear of one man living in a bunker,” Alexey Navalny said in his final statement in court yesterday, making a jocular reference to president Vladimir Putin. “I mortally offended him by simply surviving the attempt to kill me, which was done on his orders.”

But what comes next? And what are the prospects of protest mobilisation given that Navalny, their principal public coordinator, is now in prison?

The opposition politician, now headed to prison for two-and-a-half years, also used his platform in the dock to look forward, mentioning his hope that his imprisonment “would not be taken by people as a signal that they should be afraid”.

On the evidence of the past few weeks, it looks as though his wish may be granted. Many observers (and participants) have been impressed by the scale of the protest mobilisation in Russia since Navalny’s return and arrest on 17 January, with people out in the streets in over 100 Russian cities and towns.

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The Moscow city court judge handed down its sentence after a tense day which saw, according to independent monitoring organisation OVD-Info, over 1,400 people detained outside the building and the protests that followed throughout the day.

Whether the protests will lead to real change, or just fizzle out, depends on far more than what Alexey Navalny does, or has done to him. As ever, the nuts and bolts of organising will be crucial, as will the direction of the overall ‘protest mood’.

Also critical, though, will be the relation between Navalny’s organisation, its supporters and the broader mass of disaffected Russian citizens who are inclined to protest – and what they can all do, beyond street demonstrations, to make themselves heard.

New wave

In January, Navalny returned to Russia after surviving a deadly poisoning attempt. Upon arrival, he was arrested, and his team released a two-hour video investigation into a secret palace on Russia’s Black Sea which, he alleges, was gifted to president Vladimir Putin as a bribe by oligarchs. Navalny then called for two nationwide protests one week apart in Russia, which have seen thousands of people detained.

This new cycle has ended a more subdued – although far from silent – time of protest in the country: the global pandemic and its restrictions, as well as draconian measures by law enforcement, have been less conducive to public actions over the past year.

But it’s not all about Navalny. Aside from the injustice of his return to prison in what many see as stage-managed court proceedings, evidence and footage of cruel treatment, force and violence against people at protests by Russian law enforcement has likely contributed to the resolve of current and potential protesters.

These are the people who have had their futures taken away, and these are the people you are trying to frighten

Alexey Navalny

People who have never protested before have taken to the streets. In their campaigns, Navalny and his team appear to have successfully knitted together everyday concerns in Russia’s regions around public services, jobs and local development with more state-level issues of democracy, elite corruption, insider control and, indeed, the personalised rule of Vladimir Putin.

Protest potential

This was a message Navalny ended on in the hearing yesterday. “Tens of millions of people are living without any prospects whatsoever,” he said in his final statement. “They are the people we talk about when we say: ‘In Moscow, life isn’t too bad, but drive 100 kilometres and it’s a complete dump.’ [...] These are the people who have had their futures taken away, and these are the people you are trying to frighten [by imprisoning me].”

There are millions of people who are watching all of this, but they don’t want to risk what they have [...] but they want to do something

Alexander Zamyatin, Moscow municipal councillor

“There is a pretty good capacity for self-organisation, despite Navalny’s authoritarian style of politics,” said Alexander Zamyatin, a Moscow municipal councillor who is active in local protest politics, campaigning for public services, local government and against overdevelopment.

“After all, it’s not only members of Navalny’s regional offices or his fiercest supporters who are protesting – many people are just responding to injustice,” he said. “They are not part of Navalny’s structures, they are self-organised, and this is why the protest is happening en masse – there are many new people here.”

Asked about other forms of public pressure on the Russian authorities aside from demonstrations, Zamyatin said: “The protest has more potential than what we see on the streets.”

“Tens of thousands of people are coming out onto the streets,” he said, “but there are – and I’m not afraid to say it – millions of people who are watching all of this, but they don’t want to risk what they have, they’re scared to come out, but they want to do something. And right now there’s no civic infrastructure that would convert that potential into some kind of real energy [...] No one has anything to give them, it’s a sad fact.”

When asked about the idea that the current protest mood could become more radical, Zamyatin said: “I would tend to agree, given that those who are now under attack – they represented the moderate section of the protest. They were peaceful and civic. And by neutralising them, the authorities have opened the door to wilder and more radical politicians. They will come to this empty space, develop and grow their influence. And the protest situation might not look as inoffensive and vegetarian as it was before.”

Alexey Navalny speaks from investigative detention
Alexey Navalny speaks from investigative detention
Navalny/TVRain. All rights reserved

Philosopher Oksana Timofeyeva says that the current protest movement is “revolutionary in character”, but is ultimately “not for something, but against it”.

“The widespread opinion that people just want to change one tsar for another, younger and better looking is mistaken,” Timofeyeva said to independent Russian outlet Colta this week.

“But this is how many media portray it – whether they’re pro-government, liberal, Russian or Western. If the media coverage was not concentrated around Alexey Navalny as the protests’ only leader, then perhaps the protest would be even bigger,” she continued.

“For many people involved in the protests, Navalny is not a leader, or someone they want to see as president instead of Putin, but one of many political prisoners,” Timofeyeva said. As one example, mathematician Azat Miftakhov received six years in prison in January after being convicted of breaking a window at a branch of Putin’s United Russia party in Moscow. As another, artist Yulia Tsetkova, from Russia’s far east, has been prosecuted on pornography charges after sharing her body-positive art work online.

“Desperation and anger are overcoming fear,” Timofeyeva continued. “In our situation, these political emotions have an incredible mobilising force, bringing people together with all sorts of views – left-wingers and right-wingers, liberals and conservatives, libertarians and anarchists.”

“At any moment, any one of us can be put away for however long on a fabricated case. The answer to this situation lies in people’s readiness to act outside the law, which will increase in response to repression – and find other forms apart from protest.”

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