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Putin’s arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny is a sign of weakness, not strength

Don’t expect mass street protests

- January 18, 2021

Once Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny boarded Pobeda flight DB936 from Berlin to Moscow on Sunday, the only question was whether he would be arrested before or after he got off the plane. The smart money, it turned out, was on after.

The question on many people’s minds is how this will affect Russia’s politics. Will Navalny’s arrest lead to massive public unrest of the kind that has happened in Belarus, or will Russia’s population remain indifferent? My research on the role of the public under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime suggests there’s little evidence right now that an uprising will take place.

Putin’s government thinks arresting Navalny makes good political sense

Russian police arrested Navalny — the most vociferous critic of Putin’s and the leader of the country’s strongest independent political organization — as he attempted to pass through passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. Navalny was returning from Berlin, where he had been evacuated, comatose, after being poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent in the Siberian city of Tomsk in August. Rather than challenge the Kremlin from the safety of exile, Navalny said in an Instagram post announcing his decision, that he was coming back because “Russia is my country.” Putin evidently disagrees.

Navalny’s arrest sends a clear message that the Kremlin is in charge, and it doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Much as China has ignored domestic and foreign opinion in putting down opposition in Hong Kong, or as Alexander Lukashenko has done in suppressing protest in Belarus, the Kremlin has calculated the benefits of decapitating Russia’s opposition outweigh the costs.

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The costs, however, are considerable. If — as law enforcement officials are requesting — a court sentences Navalny to several years in prison, it will look to many observers as though he is being punished for the crime of surviving an assassination attempt. Already, the temporary detention has been roundly condemned by European leaders and the incoming Biden administration. A longer sentence could bring sanctions. It also reinforces the perception that Navalny makes the Kremlin nervous, a feeling that could undermine support for the regime and bolster the opposition ahead of parliamentary elections this year.

Putin’s regime has problems

Once, Putin and the ruling United Russia party could have mobilized a combination of ideological appeal, material handouts and well-tuned propaganda — together with control of who can and can’t get on the ballot — to manufacture the election outcome they want.

Back then, the Kremlin was prepared to tolerate Navalny, at least up to a point. The Kremlin projected confidence and strength by giving Navalny relative freedom, while still keeping him on a string.

Now, though, Russia’s leaders seem uneasy that they can use their traditional tools to manage Russian politics. Putin’s approval ratings are only barely above all-time lows, and as the economy continues to stagnate, the ideological levers that allowed them to marginalize Navalny in 2011 and 2012 are no longer working. This means arresting Navalny is the path with the least resistance.

This isn’t the first time Navalny has found himself in legal trouble. He has spent numerous brief spells in jail for organizing banned protests. But after being convicting of fraud in two cases in 2013 and 2014 — both convictions were overturned by the European Court for Human Rights but promptly reinstated by Russian courts — Navalny was given suspended sentences. This allowed him to go about a more or less normal life but barred him from running for high office and required he check in periodically with a parole officer. The purported reason for arresting him on Sunday was that he missed a parole meeting while in a coma in Berlin.

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But Navalny has problems, too

In a Facebook post shortly after the arrest, Navalny ally and campaign manager Leonid Volkov sought to turn the arrest into a victory of sorts for the movement. The post noted Navalny had not only survived the poisoning and extracted a confession from one of his own would-be killers, but had also defied threat after threat and still come home. Supporters thronged Moscow’s Vnukovo airport to meet him, evidently prompting authorities to redirect the jet to Sheremetyevo, even as dozens were arrested. If ordinary opposition supporters could turn around an airplane in the sky, he asked, what else could they achieve?

Volkov wrote that “In violation of all procedures and common sense, Navalny has now been detained exactly because he survived and returned.” He continued: “Everything that happens next will depend, without a doubt, on Navalny’s supporters in Russia.”

Putin, of course, only has to look to his colleague Lukashenko to see how quickly a strongman can weaken. Indeed, many in the Russian opposition have taken inspiration from the movement in Belarus. But there’s little evidence just yet that Navalny’s arrest will provoke a Belarus-style mass uprising.

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What has brought Belarusians of all stripes together in protest — and what has sometimes allowed Navalny to do the same in Russia — has been a shared sense that they have been disenfranchised, and anger that their votes or livelihoods have been stolen. Dishearteningly for Navalny’s supporters, Russians by and large didn’t feel that sense of loss when Navalny was poisoned. His allies will be hoping they can change that, now that he’s in jail.

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Samuel Greene (@samagreene) is director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London.