16 August 2017

What next for Alexei Navalny?

By Evgeny Pudovkin

Earlier this summer, Russia celebrated its 27th birthday. The National Day ceremonies didn’t go as smoothly as the country’s officials would have hoped. Anti-corruption protesters staged rallies at several big cities, with the largest protest in Moscow.

Several thousand demonstrators marched through the capital’s main street, chanting anti-Kremlin slogans and waving flags. Nearby, and visibly distressed, stood the group of Muscovites dressed up as Cossacks and agents of Soviet secret police. Those most annoyed with activists (the Cossacks, naturally) shouted “Shame!” at demonstrators.

You couldn’t come up with a more suitable metaphor for a nascent nation struggling with age-old tensions and a clash between modernity and tradition.

Many of those at the protest would have had more pressing concerns than the symbolism of their standoff.  A number of demonstrators were roughed up and dragged into police vans. In total, about 1,500 activists were detained. Among them was the leader of the opposition movement, Alexei Navalny.

Despite the police’s tough approach to protest, his calls for street action manage to attract considerable crowd. According to various estimates, 50,00 and 90,000 people came out on the streets to support Navalny on June 12.

Navalny thus broke the drought of protest activity that has lasted half a decade, since the peak of anti-Kremlin sentiment in 2011-12.

But what is special about the new cycle of discontent? How far can Navalny and his movement go? And in what ways might it affect the Kremlin’s behaviour?

Navalny’s protest movement distinguishes itself from the one in 2011-12 in both purpose and composition. Then the protesters’ demands were mainly political. The most conspicuous grievance concerned the apparent and large-scale vote-rigging on the government’s part took place in parliamentary elections in December 2011.

Although the topic of political freedom remains central, Navalny’s followers are just as concerned with Russia’s deteriorating economic situation. In 2012, they held banners saying “Fair Elections”, whereas today’s activists scold impoverishment and corruption.

Demographics have also changed. The opposition crowds have become both younger and poorer since demonstrations 5 years ago. Or, at least, these groups now play a more prominent role. Indeed, as one Russian columnist has observed, the protests of fur coats has become a rebellion of backpack

Yet the impact of the protests will be modest. For all their bravery and benevolent intentions, a few tens of thousands of protestors on the streets of Moscow cannot bring about large-scale changes. There are two main reasons why.

To begin with, demand for the liberalisation of Russia’s political system is not nearly widespread enough. Putin’s approval ratings stand at 80 per cent. In fact, if there is a popular demand for political change, it is for tightening the screws on dissenters, not for giving them more air. According to the poll conducted by Levada Center, an independent polling organisation, only 12 per cent of Russians support liberal reforms. Forty per cent are satisfied with the status quo. Thirty-four per cent want Putin to pursue a tougher course of action on the domestic front.

In addition to that, economic circumstances in Russia are not necessarily dire enough to trigger a wide-scale discontent. At least not right now. The country’s per capita GDP is $8.700, which is higher than it was at the start of 2000s.

Even if he presents only a very small threat to the government at present, Navalny remains the most prominent public figure in opposition. How will the movement he leads evolve?

Navalny is unlikely to succeed at the ballot box. The Kremlin will probably not allow him to take part in any future elections. And even if it does, his campaign won’t struggle to get off the ground given the controls on funding that keep the opposition from building up the necessary war chest.

The only option for Navalny, it seems, is to cultivate his movement outside of traditional party system. Doing so with anything that looks like success will mean trading a cautious path which avoids escalating tensions further and provoking the Kremlin.

If the economic situation continues to worsen, the crowds are bound to swell. The threats to Russia’s economy are legion, legion, but foremost among them is the falling oil price that will continue to put pressure on public finances.

Russia bears features often found in South American regimes – high inequality, rampant corruption and an authoritarian, though not totalitarian, political system. This is fertile soil for anyone with an anti-sleaze, economically populist message.

And the signs are that an economic turn leftwards would win the opposition support. According to a study conducted by the Higher School of Economics, a leading Russian university, more than half of citizens want the government to perform the functions of planning. Eighty per cent of respondents also said they want the state to set food prices.

Navalny cannot but notice this political space. A leftwards shift – whatever its economic merits – would be a way of bridging the divide between his young activist base and older workers, winning over Putin supporters disillusioned by a deterioration of their financial status.

Navalny’s vagueness on Crimea is also indicative of his wider effort to shore support among “ordinary” Russians. While most liberal opposition assert that the territory must be given back to Ukraine, Navalny has been more elusive. He has said would be happy for the peninsula to remain under Russian control, but only if its people would vote for it in the new referendum, this time under proper supervision.

The Kremlin might seek to ally Russians’ concerns by addressing economic challenges. But if that proves too difficult, it may resort to upping the ante on the anti-Western rhetoric in an attempt to rally the country behind the flag.

That strategy has worked for Putin in the past. And so the Kremlin will probably get away with countering economic protests by focusing attention on the struggle with the West and threats to its sovereignty. But where that logic leads Russia, and for how much longer it will work, is unclear. Unclear to Alexei Navalny. Unclear even to Vladimir Putin.

Evgeny Pudovkin writes on the UK, Russia and foreign affairs.