Thousands of people across Russia’s 11 time zones took to the streets on January 23 to protest the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, braving the winter cold, the pandemic and the very real threat of brutality police and incarceration. The event kicks off a long season of protest ahead of the September parliamentary elections which turn into a plebiscite over the legitimacy of President Vladimir Putin’s two-decade rule, whether he rigs them or not.
The protests took place just a week after Navalny’s bold return to Russia. In August, he was rushed to a hospital in Germany after being poisoned with a nerve agent and stayed there for several months to recover. Before leaving Germany, Navalny took part in an investigation into his poisoning (mainly carried out by the British investigative group Bellingcat) and even had a long telephone conversation with one of the suspected killers.
Navalny is currently under arrest, accused of having violated his suspended sentence by leaving for Germany and staying there for a few months. The sentence for which he received a suspended sentence was declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.
It increasingly appears that the leader of the Russian opposition has become Putin’s main rival, if not yet for the nation’s leaders, at least for the status of the most famous Russian in the world. His newly gained international fame made a joke about the pro-Kremlin media policy of referring to him as just a “blogger” and Putin’s own refusal to call him by name.
Having indeed started as an anti-corruption blogger more than a decade ago, Navalny was the first Russian opposition figure to succeed in creating an extremely effective national network of supporters, many of whom were in their twenties or twenties. even teenagers.
In a country mired in political apathy and pervasive cynicism, he has managed to inspire millions of people by leading groundbreaking investigations into the astonishing corruption of Putin’s entourage and showcasing them in easy-to-understand YouTube videos. filled with its characteristic irony. By being arrested on his arrival from Germany, Navalny made the Kremlin look both weak and vengeful.
The decision to hold him can be interpreted as a sign of convulsive fear, but there is also a pragmatic side. The more hardcore part of Putin’s riding might actually enjoy the scenes of Navalny mistreatment.
Talk shows on Kremlin-related TV channels anchored by people like Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitry Kiselev, who take an almost sadistic pleasure in watching Navalny’s ordeal, have a sizable audience. Kiselev even went so far as to spend a night in the hotel room in Tomsk where Navalny’s poisoning likely took place – just to poke fun at those outraged by the attempted murder.
But Navalny also has his staunch supporters and a growing following. His latest investigation, which focused on a lavish palace Putin allegedly built for himself on the Black Sea coast, was viewed 25 million times on YouTube within 24 hours of its January 19 release and, on January 23, had reached 70 million.
Today, it seems that Russian society is divided into three unequal parts. Two minorities represent strong supporters of Navalny and Putin and a middle majority which is made up of people whose support for the Russian president is provisional and pragmatic. They are people who stick with the crowd and who are always very attentive to the general atmosphere of the country.
This means that they can change their political preferences at a one-time event when opposition to the current leadership reaches critical mass. This is what happened in 1991, when a democratic revolution in Moscow led to the collapse of the entire Soviet state. An attempt by communist extremists to organize a military coup led to a massive backlash, which resulted in the downfall of the entire regime.
More recently, in 2020, a very similar abrupt change occurred in Belarus, where people suddenly rose up against their dictatorial president, Alexander Lukashenko, with the majority joining the opposition-led protests and resistance. Lukashenko still holds firm, even though he has clearly lost his legitimacy.
It’s this kind of change Navalny hopes to precipitate when he calls on people to protest. He probably doesn’t expect immediate success. Rather, it creates momentum for the hot phase of the Duma’s election campaign in the spring and summer, when fears of COVID-19 and cold weather abate, bringing even more people to the streets.
While many are inspired by Navalny’s fearlessness, it will be an uphill battle. Millions of Putin’s conditional supporters have good reason to believe they could lose more than they would if they fell. This is dictated by their experiences from the 1990s and their understanding of regional policy today.
Putin’s regime provides for modestly good living standards – on par with poorer EU countries and much higher than in Ukraine or Georgia, the two supposed models of pro-Western reforms in the post-Western space. Soviet.
Ukraine, which experienced a period of turbulence after a revolution and a Russian military attack in 2014, remains a powerful scarecrow for the Russians. On the one hand, his Maidan revolution failed to bring down the oligarchic system or, as many call it, the mafia state. On the other hand, Putin’s intervention in Ukraine clearly showed how far the regime is prepared to do to suppress a freedom movement.
The prospect of political conflicts in Russia raises fears of a disintegration of the country accompanied by armed conflicts with neighbors or national insurgencies. Many Russians also suspected that the unsympathetic or downright hostile West would encourage the centrifugal forces that would tear the country apart, just like in Ukraine.
The West is completely oblivious to the enormity of the challenge the world will face when Russia, with its arsenal of nuclear and other deadly weapons, its millions of security personnel trained to fight and kill, inevitably enters a crisis. period of unrest due to its rupture. democratic transfer of power system. Worse still, it does not have a positive agenda for the Russian population, as it did for the inhabitants of other Eastern European countries, when they were welcomed into the European Union and the ‘NATO.
The hawkish rhetoric, particularly emanating from Washington, suggests that the West would rather see Russia turn into an alienated Eurasian wasteland surrounded by a cordon cordon of hostile nationalist regimes rather than a thriving democracy. Such a prospect would discourage even the most liberal Russians from challenging Putin’s regime.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.