The Slatest

The Kremlin’s Response to Moscow Protests Was Total Overkill. That Was the Point.

Police officers detain a protester during a rally demanding independent and opposition candidates be allowed to run for office in local election in September, in downtown Moscow on July 27, 2019.
Police officers detain a protester during a rally in downtown Moscow on Saturday.
Maxim Zmeyev/Getty Images

Despite Russia’s well-earned reputation for authoritarianism, protests against Vladimir Putin’s government are relatively common in Moscow, and usually pretty uneventful. Given its tight control over the country’s political, economic, and media institutions, the government can afford to let its opponents take to the streets now and then.

So, it was a surprise to see the harsh crackdown against a Moscow rally over the weekend. Monitors estimate that 1,373 people were arrested at protest over government rigging of upcoming local elections, and that more than 150 remain in custody. Police beat protesters with batons and violently arrested many. A number of marchers reported broken limbs.

The crackdown began last week amid a series of protests leading up to Saturday’s march. Police arrested some of the rally’s leaders, including the country’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny. Navalny was hospitalized on Sunday after suffering a severe allergic reaction. His lawyer and doctor have alleged that he was poisoned—an understandable suspicion given the recent fate of some other opponents of the Russian government, though poisoning someone like Navalny without actually killing him seems more likely to galvanize further protests than quash them. He has since been returned to prison, where he is serving a 30-day sentence for inciting the unauthorized protests.

The government’s heavy-handed response was particularly surprising given the relatively modest target of these protests. Saturday’s march was the largest of a series of demonstrations over the last few weeks after election authorities barred a number of opposition candidates from seats in Moscow’s City Duma in September.

“This was not people protesting to bring down the regime,” notes Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, who points out that the City Duma doesn’t actually have all that much power anyway. “It’s not the stuff of which revolutions are usually made.”

For Galeotti, the authorities’ “out of proportion” response “says something about decisions having been made in the Kremlin. This was definitely the state wanting to make a point.”

What might that point be? It may be that, after a number of recent concessions, the Kremlin is done compromising with the opposition. The government recently suspended plans to build a new cathedral on the site of a popular park in the city of Yekaterinberg, and a landfill in the small northern town of Urdoma, after mass protests. In another case, investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was released from house arrest in June after his detention on seemingly bogus drug charges spurred public outrage. There are only so many times an authoritarian government can back down in the face of public pressure before its authority starts to weaken.

There may be an international element as well. The Russian government tends to view—and portray—its domestic opponents as well as opposition movements in other authoritarian countries as pawns of its western adversaries. It’s been a quietly productive couple of months for anti-authoritarian movements. Protesters in Hong Kong have fought back effectively against an unpopular extradition law. Russian allies in Algeria and Sudan have been brought down after popular protests. Russian leaders may not want to take any chances.

In the short term, neither these protests nor the state’s response are likely to have a dramatic impact on Putin’s regime, which is not to say the regime doesn’t have long-term concerns. The Russian economy is likely to fall into recession next year and Russians will see a sixth straight year of falling incomes, even as the personal fortunes of those closest to the regime continue to grow. While Russians have overwhelmingly supported Putin’s assertive—and remarkably effective—foreign policy, it’s been five years since the annexation of Crimea and the rally ‘round the flag effect can’t last forever. While a solid majority of Russians—64 percent—still approve of Putin’s actions as president, according to the independent Levada Center, that number is down 17 percent since last year and a majority disapproves of the government as a whole. Putin is barred by term limits from running again in 2024, though he’s gotten around this before, and it’s unclear what comes next.

Nobody’s expecting the fall of the regime any time soon, but the outlook isn’t exactly rosy either.