The Russian populace demonstrated a rare show of dissent in late March, gathering in various cities in large numbers for anti-government protests. With 20,000 people in Moscow, 10,000 in St. Petersburg, and 2,000 in Novosibirsk, the protests were large in both scale and scope. However, the large turnout translated into chaos, as even the leader of the protests, Alexei Navalny, admitted that he could no longer recognize the demonstration he originally organized. The government detained Navalny and over 600 other protestors, but according to human rights groups, it is likely that this large number of arrests is actually understated. In the era of Putin, such powerful dissent is uncharacteristic. Given the risk of punitive actions that were announced prior to the demonstration, this large turnout is truly intriguing.
A vocal anti-corruption and anti-Putin politician, these protests are not the first time that Navalny has sparred with the government. With a background in the legal and financial sectors, Navalny first became widely known to the public in 2009 via his blog, which served as an outlet to organize political movements criticizing Putin and his allies. His criticism of Putin and corruption resonated among those similarly dissatisfied with Putin’s authoritarian ways, hence allowing Navalny’s foray into Russian politics.
Navalny’s penchant for demonstrations can be traced back to his involvement in the 2011-2012 anti-Kremlin protests. Since then, his calls for Russians to actively and vocally protest Putin have apparently rung loud and clear, as Monday’s vast showing indicates. However, his political career has been hindered by his numerous arrests by the Russian authorities for charges ranging from embezzlement to fraud. These allegations, however, have been classified as political arrests by organizations such as the Memorial Human Rights Center, and , Navalny has largely retained his supporters. Undeterred by political intimidation and a failed run in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, Navalny has continued to take the media and the Russian public by storm, and aims to run against Putin in next year’s presidential election.
Although Navalny’s fifteen-day detention and the large crackdown on the protests following Monday’s demonstration have raised questions regarding his political career and the durability of his anti-Putin movement,If history is any indication, one more arrest will not deter Navalny from his vocal and politically potent role in Russian politics. Moreover, Putin and his allies may be limited in the severity of punishments they can inflict upon Navalny, owing to his prominence in the public eye.
If Putin seeks a more serious punishment than a temporary detainment for Navalny, Navalny’s supporters—and more generally, the Russian public—will likely be emboldened to take to the streets again on a larger scale. It is likely that Putin and his allies will continue to tread lightly around the issue of Navalny to minimize public dissatisfaction and keep him in the running for the upcoming presidential election to at least maintain the facade of fair elections to both citizens and a global audience. As long as Navalny remains at the helm of these movements, their popularity and prevalence is likely assured, due to his effective rhetoric and public appeal.
However, in the case that Navalny does back down in the face of further punishment by Putin, the lifespan of these anti-Putin and anti-corruption movements becomes much more uncertain and difficult to predict. While the public’s energy and sentiment may be strong enough to sustain the movement for a while, with no clear replacement available, removing Navalny could lead to a leadership vacuum, potentially fatal to the movement and its effectiveness.
That said, it seems there is a high probability that Navalny will continue his vocal opposition to the Putin government, and with Navalny at the helm it’s likely these anti-government demonstrations will last a while. Setting aside Navalny’s presence, it is clear that the current sociopolitical situation plays a large role in these protests. Concern about Putin’s authoritarian style of governance and his government’s corrupt ways will continue to grow unless given some outlet. Thus, despite the authorities’ crackdown on this set of demonstrations, the timeliness of this public dissent, combined with the powerful voice of Navalny, make the incidence of further protests in the near future highly plausible. Unless Putin’s self-serving regime can give the Russian public something in the way of real progress, it will continue to make its voice heard.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Evgeny Feldman/Novaya Gazeta