The growing opposition against Russian dissident Alexey Navalny’s arrest has prompted Putin to respond to it, signalling that the unrest worries him.
Russia’s modern iron man, Vladimir Putin, appears to be having to deal with various cracks in the foundations of his authoritarian rule, especially as recent anti-Putin protests have grown in size in different cities across the country. The rallies have largely been seeking the release of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who was arrested soon after he landed in Moscow on January 17.
The Russian president, who was awarded two more terms after last year's controversial referendum that was held amidst the deadly pandemic, has maintained a tight grip over the country's institutions and has governed with a near-total political control of the Russian state in recent years.
But with the Navalny odyssey, that assertion does not seem to be a sure bet now. According to Navalny, in August, he was poisoned by the Russian secret service. It was once led by Putin. Germany, where Navalny flew for medical assistance after the incident in Russia’s Siberia, also believes he was poisoned. Moscow denies any allegations regarding Navalny poisoning.
“Navalny as a liberal opposition politician represents a European Russia between Saint Petersburg and Moscow. He has a symbolic significance in Russia, where there is no real opposition, due to his outspoken manner to bring out the country’s issues as well as governance problems,” says Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia political analyst.
“That’s an important development for the Russians,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World. In a country, where citizens suffer hugely from “nepotism, kleptocracy and corruption”, Navalny is able to succeed in pulling some attention from ordinary people, according to Yalinkilicli.
But it does not mean he could be a significant opposition runner against Putin in the 2024 presidential elections, the political analyst adds.
“He does not have a powerful sociological base in Russia. But ordinary people pay attention to what he says not only due to his criticism of Putin but also his talk on Russia’s chronic issues related to its communist Soviet past such as its closed economic and political system,” Yalinkilicli observes.
There are serious economic problems and the economic gap between the country’s west and east has also not improved into a better shape, the analyst says. “Despite having rich sources, the country could not address how all the wealth Russia has could be fairly distributed among its citizens,” he says.
Russia is rich with mineral sources. But since 2018, the country has entered an economic slowdown, while Covid-19 has compounded the country’s financial problems by decreasing oil and energy prices. This has led to a financial decline in Russia, increasing poverty and unemployment.
“While the country is rich with energy sources, it produces much less. And much of its wealth has been shared by a small minority of Russian elites,” Yalinkilicli says. “Even they increased the retirement age to 65, [angering ordinary people]. Putin’s approval ratings have also decreased since the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.”
As a result, Navalny and his allies want to make their voices heard by many by using issues like nepotism, corruption, unemployment, poverty and kleptocracy, Yalinkilicli views.
Russia’s powerful leader does not usually show his hand when an important political event concerning the country has surfaced - whether it’s from Ukraine, Belarus or Syria.
During the former Trump administration, he also appeared to play a lowkey political role when Washington was sailing in turbulent political waters from Russian election meddling allegations to Trump’s connections with Putin.
But Navalny's delicate return to Russia, where it was already clear that he would definitely face detention, appeared to have an effect on Putin’s nerves. Navalny’s homecoming was also simultaneously accompanied by the release of a viral video, which has appeared to show the details of Putin’s alleged palace on the Black Sea coast.
“Nothing of what was indicated there as my property belongs either to me or my close relatives,” Putin said during a televised event with Russian university students after one of them asked him about the allegations.
The video, which has been seen by more than 90 million people as of now, was made in Germany during Navalny’s medical stay there.
“Well that's what you've done! Putin so wanted to ignore, but now he had to make excuses publicly,” wrote Lyubov Sobol, a leading aide to Navalny, on Twitter. She also added that Putin’s response to the palace allegations show that he “could not ignore what the whole country is discussing.”
Russian police’s soft response to the protests, which are illegal according to the country’s laws, has also indicated that Moscow does not want to fan popular anger further by using force against the protesters.
A colour revolution?
Pro-democracy movements across Russian neighbourhoods like Ukraine and Georgia have long been a cause of discomfort for both Putin and Muscovite elites. In both countries, in the past, colour revolutions, which were backed by both the US and the EU, have unseated leaderships with close connections to Moscow.
Now with rising protests against Putin’s rule, Russian elites suspect a Western hand in recent street demonstrations, in which more than three thousands pro-Navalny protesters have been detained. But not only elites but also many Russians, particularly, the right-wing supporters, regard him as a kind of foreign agent used by Western powers, according to Yalinkilicli.
“Navalny and his political team are not clean as a whistle. They have a Western backing,” Yalinkilicli says. “The US and the EU have a political agenda to export another Orange Revolution to Russia. In this sense, he is part of a globalist political agenda,” he says.
The Orange Revolution refers to a pro-democracy movement in Ukraine, where it toppled a Russian-backed government in 2004-2005. But later on, it also led to a Russian political intervention in the country’s east, where pro-Moscow separatists declared their own enclave against Kiev.
Putin has expressly criticised the merits of globalist liberal democratic ideas. In a past interview, he said, “The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population,” emphasising his support for national sovereignty.
“For him, national sovereignty means that no foreign country can tell someone like him — or Assad or Yanukovych or Maduro — what to do inside his country, even if what is done is the violent suppression of citizens’ dissent,” wrote Julia Ioffe, a writer and political analyst.
Yalinkilickli thinks that Russia has reasons to doubt the Western political agenda behind Navalny and his political motives. He also says that Democrat Joe Biden’s rise to power in the US might also have some effect in expanding recent protests across Russia.
“But it does not mean everything goes in the right direction inside Russia,” he adds.