“This is not a sentence against him, but against all of us.”
That’s how Ilya Klishin, a prominent Russian former journalist, described a Moscow court’s ruling yesterday sentencing opposition leader Alexei Navalny to prison for nearly three years. Though widely expected, it still sent shockwaves through the country’s politically engaged liberal class, drawing comparisons to the historic 2003 jailing of ex-oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Vladimir Putin’s chief opponent. Hundreds of Muscovites hit the streets late Tuesday to protest the ruling, but the overwhelming presence of riot police turned downtown into a virtual gauntlet. More than 1,000 people were arrested.
The stakes have never been higher for Russia’s already badly beleaguered opposition—nor has the government’s room for compromise been narrower. “The Kremlin,” says Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, “has come to the conclusion that coercion is a better strategy for them than persuasion.”
Discontent boiled over late last month after Navalny was arrested upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he’d received treatment after a nearly fatal nerve agent poisoning Western governments, among many others, believe was ordered by the Kremlin. Further angered by Navalny’s release of a bombshell investigation into what his team claims is a billion-dollar Black Sea palace built for Putin, tens of thousands of people turned out in scores of cities across Russia over the past two weeks to decry endemic corruption and selective justice. Thousands were detained, some brutally, while Navalny’s allies promised more civil disobedience.
Reports from the ground suggested the demonstrations were “something special,” reflecting a level of anger not seen during earlier rounds of unrest. In contrast to the occasionally sanctioned and mostly peaceful opposition rallies of 2011-2012 in Moscow (which I covered firsthand), protesters this time appeared emboldened—perhaps because nearly a decade has passed without the slightest sign of political liberalization, or because they were motivated by their peers in Belarus who’ve doggedly continued turning out against their own strongman almost six months after last year’s disputed election.
Indeed, most agree the boldness of Navalny’s confrontation with Putin has surpassed that of any other opposition figure in Russia, while his political acumen and organizational power remain unmatched among his peers. He has inspired many young Russians fed up with the stodgy, Soviet nature of Putin’s lifetime rule and the international isolation it has brought with it.
Yet time and again, whether during the massive rallies of nine years ago or the scattered socioeconomic protests around the country more recently, his system has persisted amid periodic spikes of discontent. Unlikely as it may seem, experts say it’s precisely these kinds of challenging moments that help the Putin regime develop its remarkable resilience. “He has built his power methodically,” said Gregory Feifer, a veteran Russia watcher and former NPR correspondent in Moscow. “He’s done it by trial and error.”
A quick look at recent history might help explain why. Consider, for example, the almost-sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991: Although presaged by economic crisis and social malaise, it was largely facilitated by elites who no longer bought into the Communist system. But Putin has built a social and political structure bound by corruption at every level, says Feifer, author of Russians: The People Behind the Power, ensuring that precious few—from ordinary citizens to high-level members of his security clan—see incentives to shaking up the status quo.
At the elite level, according to democracy watchdog Freedom House, the state is “closely intertwined with powerful economic oligarchs, who benefit from government patronage in exchange for political loyalty and various forms of service.” That graft trickles all the way down to the bottom, with private businesses “routinely targeted for extortion or expropriation by law enforcement officials and organized criminal groups.” The result is a self-sustaining system built on broad societal buy-in, whether many Russians like it or not.
The power of Putin’s security apparatus has also helped. Judging by their gratuitous violence against protesters in recent weeks, Russian riot police have learned from their Belarusian counterparts in using force to frighten away dissatisfied citizens (though have not yet reached the same level of brutality). While keeping Navalny locked up, especially during September’s parliamentary elections, serves a clear political purpose, it’s also demonstrative. “The goal,” wrote Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya on Twitter, “is to make Navalny—and others—realize that they face the prospect of spending the rest of their lives behind bars.”
Navalny’s imprisonment is undoubtedly a test for Russia’s opposition. On one hand, Greene says, his movement has built a disciplined grassroots network that may well continue humming along even with its leader behind bars. On the other, the authorities likely won’t shy away from continuing to harass activists or locking them up. But the current moment may also be deeply revealing for the countless ordinary Russians who, despite their possible distaste for Putin’s crude autocracy, have stayed politically uninvolved or otherwise silent over the years.
Then there’s the ardent base the Russian leader cultivated by stoking a culture war pitting a solid nationalist-minded majority against an increasingly marginalized and insular liberal class. Feifer, who followed Putin’s rise in Russia as a fellow for the Institute of Current World Affairs (where he is now the executive director and where I work as an editor) highlights the important role societal elites played in either tolerating or enabling Putin at the outset. Back then, in the early 2000s, many prominent cultural and political figures rallied around the gray former KGB operative and reveled in his promise to lift Russia from what he characterized as the ruin of the 1990s—a refrain he regularly raises today.
Dampened by years of street rallies, online chatter and muckraking journalism, some of his shine has since worn off. But however inspiring Navalny’s movement may have been in recent years, it’s still far from convincing enough Russians to divest from a rigid system they’ve known for at least two decades. That’s not to say the system is unbreakable; the catastrophic lack of public investment and economic diversification, as well as increasing isolation on the world stage, means it is almost certainly unsustainable. But although the lack of public mandate also makes Putin’s rule brittle, there are few signs that reform or collapse is imminent.
Like many of his peers, Klishin, a former editor at Russia’s only independent TV station, is wondering how long he’ll need to wait before figures like Navalny are allowed to play a meaningful role in his country’s political life. “Even worse,” he told me the morning after the ruling, “Russia’s current rulers have kids.”
As the repression continues, he adds that it amounts to “a wake-up call addressed to the silent majority”—who may find it increasingly difficult to bury their heads in the sand. “You are either against unmotivated police brutality, unjust pseudo-justice and repression,” he says, “or you support it.” But how many Russians will begin asking themselves that question?
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