The poisoning of Alexey Navalny, the foremost Russian opposition activist, at the end of August 2020 shocked the world. Tests conducted in a German military lab had found unequivocal proof of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group. The same chemical weapon that was used by Russia’s GRU (military intelligence) to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, UK in March 2018.
Although no one has any illusions about the state of democracy in Russia, the incident drew the attention of the international community to the reprisals to which Kremlin opposition is subjected. In response to allegations, the Russian authorities reacted in a very characteristic manner “Admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations”, trying to reduce the overall impact of this story. But the incident took on a new dimension earlier this year, after Navalny published a series of evidence demonstrating the Kremlin’s involvement in his poisoning.
Furthermore, two days after his arrest on return to Moscow, Navalny’s team released an in-depth YouTube investigation that contains allegations of vast corruption schemes related to what they say is Putin’s property estimated to be worth around $ 1.4 billion. According to a poll issued by the independent Levada Center, 1 in 4 Russians have watched this investigation.
Following this, Russia has been shaken by a wave of protests throughout January. The wide geography of those street movements, right up to Yakutia, where rallies were held at a temperature of -50 degrees, represent an important difference from the protests in the past years. The current protests were held in at least 125 cities, the most numerous being in Moscow and St. Petersburg and based on estimations, there were about 300 thousand people.
Experts have divided opinions about the reasons why the Russians took to the streets. Some believe that the poisoning of Navalny, his unjustified arrest and the FBK’s investigation of “Putin’s palace” without a transparent response from authorities, all these create a feeling of reigning injustice, which pushes people to the streets.
The other reasons for the scale of these protests could be linked to the economic uncertainties brought by COVID-19 and the continuous lack of structural reforms that the country requires. The pandemic, the deteriorating state of the economy, social problems and the severe fatigue of different social groups regarding the current political agenda have increased the mood for protests.
Despite the fact that the Russian authorities are constantly trying to enhance Putin’s domestic legitimacy by demonstrating Russia’s status as a global superpower through the promotion of specific Russian commercial, military, and energy interests, the economic situation on the ground looks a little different from what they try to portray.
According to official statistics half of working Russians earn less than $550 USD a month. From 2014 (after the imposition of EU economic sanctions triggered by the annexation of Crimea) the real income of the population in Russia has been steadily declining. This trend was further accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. According to Rosstat data, they are now more than 10% behind the 2013 level, with 19.6 million Russians living below the poverty line.
In practice, the issue of social inequality in Russia remains pressing in the public consciousness and has become even more acute. The further we get from big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, the deeper these social inequalities are. One of the reasons for this is the growing gap between the rich aka the elite at the top and the rest of the population. The golden toilet brush, one of the symbols of the protests, perfectly describes this phenomenon. While most citizens worry about the well-being of their families, the Russian elite is full of opulence.
Far from eliminating corruption, Putin’s era has merely changed the shape of corruption, integrating it into the “power vertical” through which Putin governs. In recent years, corruption has played an ever-larger role in the regime’s stability. It serves as a force to co-opt and control the political elite.
All these elements help us to paint a picture of the modern Russian society, crushed by social and economic discrepancy. What Navalny is trying to do is to expose Putin and his entourage as the main culprits for this state of affairs, using for this purpose the most powerful and available tool of our times, the internet. This is what makes Navalny a problem for the existing regime. Even with all the propaganda machinery in place, it is practically impossible to stop his voice widely spreading via the internet.
Another concern for the regime is the fight for the “mindset” of the younger generation. According to the polls, the average age of participants in the latest rally is 31. The main contingent of those participating is educated, working people – the “economically active population” or the middle class. Of course, many of those protesting did not do so to stand up for Navalny specifically, but rather to speak out against a regime that censors, poisons, and steals from its people. They understand the power of mass media, and social platforms which enable them to connect with the world beyond Russia in ways that were difficult to reach before.
It would be naive to believe that at this stage Alexey Navalny can overthrow power in Russia. His political reputation and level of trust among the population is still quite low. In general, the Russians are rather apathetic to the political elite, and do not see an alternative to the current establishment. A well-known expert on Russian politics, Mark Galeotti mentioned in one of his recent articles, “Putin’s regime has to a large extent maintained itself not through fear and force, but apathy. Russians have been convinced that, however imperfect, what they have is about the best for which they could hope. “
But with all the effort to undermine the political opposition, in fact, Navalny’s biggest promoter is the Kremlin regime itself. The way the Kremlin regime treats the Navalny case, does nothing but help him gain even more popularity and heroic image, both inside the country and abroad. Navalny’s main role at this moment is to implant a seed of distrust in the regime and undermine Putin’s own claim that he is working for the interest of his people. The truth is, Navalny is the only one who was able to build a political infrastructure capable of challenging the current system. This is the beginning of a long journey towards real democracy in Russia. It only remains to see if he succeeds in this mission.