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Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia — and his arrest — have upended Russian politics

What’s happening in the country, part 2.

- January 27, 2021

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, as Russians were protesting against the Kremlin in early 2021 and dissenter Alexei Navalny was returning to the country, Good Authority contributor Joshua Tucker asked political scientists how they interpreted these events. This analysis was originally published in the Washington Post on January 28, 2021. For more on this topic, see Part 1 of this series.

On Jan. 17, 2021, Alexei Navalny, perhaps the best-known domestic critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, returned to Russia in dramatic fashion after recovering in Germany from what he claims was deliberate poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok, allegedly by agents of the Kremlin. Navalny was promptly arrested at the airport upon his arrival in Moscow, setting the stage for nationwide protests across Russia that resulted in over 3,000 arrests. The protests look likely to resume on Sunday.

What does Navalny’s return — and the protests against his arrest — mean for Russian politics?

With an eye toward whether, as Alexey Kovalev wrote in the New York Times, “something special just happened in Russia,” I reached out to my colleagues in the PONARS Eurasia network of research scholars. What follows are lightly edited versions of some of the many responses — be sure to check out the first part of the commentary.

Will Putin try to “Trumpify” Navalny?

Jesse Driscoll, associate professor of political science, University of California at San Diego

Coordinating protests across numerous Russian cities — at the coldest time of the year — is certainly impressive. The September 2021 state Duma elections are months away, however, and Putinists have months to coordinate their response.

Social scientists can predict how Putinism might use its assets to respond — imagine an information ecosystem with only Fox News Channel; no MSNBC or NPR. A two-pronged retaliation is likely: selective threats against Navalny’s core supporters and a relentless, sustained media campaign to demoralize swing supporters.

Subtle intimidation — canceled visas, unscheduled drop-ins on family members — is not abnormal in Russia. High-profile arrests could up the ante. The new foreign agent law will be weaponized, with timing calibrated to disrupt Navalny’s momentum and steal news cycles. Pro-Putin media coverage will connect the dots to paint a nefarious picture of Nevalny’s movement as a front for CIA- and Stanford-funded Soros stooges.

To suppress opposition turnout and keep swing United Russia voters from defecting, Putin will continue to present himself as the battle-tested company man, smearing Nevalny as an untested pretty-boy celebrity, a proxy of foreign interests and a toxic beacon for brainwashed fanatics. Putin, the face of the establishment, will stage a theatrical defense of mother Russia.

Maria Popova, associate professor of political science and Jean Monnet chair, McGill University

Up until recently, Navalny was a domestic nuisance for Putin — an anti-government blogger with a small following, who griped about corruption and occasionally managed to bring people to the streets. When tested in Moscow’s mayoral election, however, Navalny couldn’t get even a quarter of the votes. The regime used the courts to harass him, his family and activists with administrative fines, temporary detention, suspended sentences and the occasional effective sentence. Putin’s regime has long used targeted prosecutions to send messages to ordinary Russians about what activities they should avoid: anti-government street protests, anti-Putin blogging or criticizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. However, these prosecutions have been sporadic and have sometimes led to suspended sentences or dropped charges, because their main goal was to admonish, rather than punish.

Navalny has now become, in the eyes of the Kremlin, a foreign aggressor who comes to instigate a Ukraine-style “color revolution” in Russia, with the West’s help. The Kremlin will seek to punish him — and dismantle his grass-roots organization through systematic legal repression. Navalny’s trial may hark back to the show trials from Soviet times. Many ordinary protesters could suffer lasting legal repercussions as well.

What’s symbolic and what’s real in modern Russia

Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, reader in Russian politics, King’s College London

Navalny’s return to Russia this month is the event that elevated his political image and changed the structure of the political landscape in the country. His choice of a principle over his life chances turned a marginalized political opposition leader into a symbol of opposition to Russia’s corrupt political regime. Until Navalny’s return last week, there was only one national symbol — embodied in Putin — who, after the Crimea annexation, turned into a symbol of the resurgence of Russia. The imaginary nature of that resurgence is becoming ever clearer, as the economic stagnation and the pandemic undermine Putin’s symbolic power.

Symbols tend to stick around and political symbols are no different. Whether Navalny is in prison or out, the genie is out of the bottle. The Kremlin that has helped to create a new symbol of Russia’s better future will have a harder time now to defend the status quo.

A new surge of external aggressiveness?

Pavel K. Baev, research professor, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)

The sharp deterioration of domestic order might prompt a frustrated Kremlin to lash out in the international arena, in which its status has seriously suffered. For Putin and his courtiers, the sudden elevation of Navalny to the figure of high renown is irritating and dangerous, not least because the threat of new sanctions is always a possibility. Instead of rebuffing Western criticism and responding with symbolic counter-sanctions, Moscow may decide to act proactively and preemptively, especially as the Russian leadership expects the Biden team to take a confrontational approach. Russia’s options for making an aggressive move are limited — it’s in the Middle East that opportunities for squeezing U.S. interests to the maximum effect with minimal expenditure of resources can be explored. Syria remains Russia’s theater of choice, and the remaining U.S. forces in the areas to the east of Euphrates are vulnerable to direct but deniable attacks.

What is the end game?

Mikhail Filippov, associate professor of political science, Binghamton University (SUNY)

The protesters are united against Putin, corruption, lawlessness, human rights violations and worsening economic conditions. What they are for, however, is likely to be a challenging issue moving forward.

The difficulty in working out a common positive agenda can be explained by the country’s enormous size, its diversity and inequality. The changes that would improve the situation in Moscow, St. Petersburg and a few other big cities would worsen the situation of residents of smaller towns and many of Russia’s impoverished regions.

The problem is that any detailed program of reforms would split the opposition in Russia. So we should expect a continuation of Navalny’s strategy, with his primary focus on fighting corruption and, in part, his calls for some measures of social support. Importantly, we should not expect Navalny to call for a substantive change in Russia’s foreign policy in a less-aggressive direction, because such an appeal, too, would split the opposition.