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Putin Is Losing the Battle for Russia’s Future

Since arresting Alexei Navalny on his return from Germany and hastily packing him off to prison, the Russian authorities have turned the country's politics into a binary affair: you are either with Navalny or with President Vladimir Putin. And that is a contest that Putin is no longer confident he can win.

Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war.

Navalny has long been a prominent opponent of President Vladimir Putin. But his arrest –immediately upon returning to Moscow from Germany, where he had spent months recovering from a (presumably) Kremlin-ordered poisoning – has turned him (as well as his comrades-in-arms, many of whom have also been arrested) into something of a moral authority as well.

Now that he has been sentenced to nearly three years in prison – which may be extended, if the authorities charge him with more crimes – Navalny’s moral standing is on par with late-Soviet dissidents like Andrei Sakharov. Russians who a few weeks ago never imagined that they would risk arrest over some moral imperative are now taking to the streets. And many of those who are staying home are sympathetically following news of the protests and Navalny’s plight.

Of course, Putin’s regime has faced protests before. In 2011, Russians flooded the streets to protest the results of a legislative election, and demonstrations continued through the first half of 2012. But the Kremlin’s response was very different then. While some protesters did face criminal charges, the demonstrations were not crushed in such a cruel way. In late 2011, there were even rumors that Putin was poised to engage in a genuine dialogue with civil society, raising hopes that he was getting desperate – and even that his regime may be on the brink of collapse.

That collapse did not come. And, this time, the Kremlin is giving no hint that it will negotiate with the demonstrators. Guards encircle the Kremlin quarter and the Federal Security Service quarter, and the police and the Rosgvardiya (national guard) have arrested so many protesters that detention centers are bursting at the seams.

But, for those who would like to see Putin fall, this may be a more promising outcome than what happened a decade ago, because it shows that the president is on the defensive. The Kremlin has become essentially a bunker. Putin, who has historically avoided responding to corruption accusations, has even denied owning the opulent palace on the Black Sea that Navalny featured in a recent viral video.

This shift reflects developments in Russia since the annexation of Crimea seven years ago. Western sanctions imposed in response to that move have gradually eroded Russia’s economy. And because state intervention in the economy is essential to maintain an autocratic regime – an approach that almost inevitably ends with attempts to regulate prices – political erosion soon followed. Welcome to the late Soviet Union.

In today’s Russia, economic policy is becoming increasingly primitive: collect money from taxpayers, and spend it on whatever Putin and his cronies want, such as law enforcement and the bureaucracy (a prime source of patronage). That means powerful security services and black-helmeted riot police who chase young people in the streets and beat them with batons. It means judges who hand down whatever sentences the Kremlin wants. And it means a massive bureaucratic machine, with millions of employees, which mindlessly repeats the Kremlin line (for example, that Navalny’s poisoning was staged by the West).

Less important, apparently, is a functioning economy. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, private and foreign investors have lost interest. With economic growth barely above zero, real incomes have fallen by 10.6% since 2014. The Russian government reports a 3.1% decline in GDP in 2020, but this is in ruble terms, and the ruble is weakening by the day. Measured in US dollars, Russia’s GDP in 2020 was 10% smaller than in 2019.

Economists say the ruble is undervalued because of “political factors.” But those factors are of the Kremlin’s own making. It is Putin’s utter rejection not only of democratization and economic liberalization, but of any attempt at modernization, that has brought the economy to its knees.

And it is not just the economy that is suffering. Russia’s judicial system is no longer credible. Universities are losing their intellectual vigor, as faculty members stifle themselves and student activists are expelled. Even the state bureaucracy is deteriorating. If the foreign ministry cannot conduct productive negotiations with the West, what good is it? Is its only purpose to churn out crude, Stalinist-style propaganda?

This institutional rot reflects the extent to which Putin’s regime has become outdated – morally, politically, and technologically. Portraits of Genrikh Yagoda, the director of the feared NKVD (the Soviet Union’s secret police), hang in police precincts (it was visible during one of Navalny’s trials). A statue of Lavrenti Beria – the most terrifying figure in twentieth-century Russian history after Stalin – is planned for the exhibition hall of the Rosatom State Atomiс Energy Corporation.

While the state clings to the past, Russian society modernizes. Herein lies the real conflict in Russia today: the outdated and the modern are competing for the hearts and minds of ordinary Russians. In this war, there will be no concessions. Opposition activity is being treated as a criminal offense. Nonprofit organizations and independent media are being labeled as foreign agents.

The authorities think that, by sending Navalny to prison, they have quelled his influence. But they have achieved the opposite result, bolstering his popularity even among those who didn’t previously like him much. Navalny has become a moral authority for many, attracting enormous interest in himself and in the protests. At the same time, he has exposed the authorities’ brutality. But his disapproval rating has grown nonetheless, because Putin loyalists view him as a real threat to stability.

However, the same survey shows that Navalny enjoys great support among young people, especially those aged 18 to 24. In other words, Putin is beginning to lose the battle for future generations to Navalny.

The protests have turned Russian politics into a binary affair: you are either with Navalny or with Putin. And that is a contest that Putin is no longer confident he can win.

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