Navalny’s release: Putin’s way of avoiding mass protests?

[Alex Navalny, by MItya Aleshkovskiy via Wikimedia Commons]

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime is continually intensifying its repressive anti-opposition policies and measures. The authorities are using all available methods, especially the courts, police, legislature and media, to silence and destroy the opposition. Many opposition leaders are monitored, arrested, imprisoned and/or on trial.

Nevertheless, Alexei Navalny, one of the key leaders of the 2011-2012 anti-Putin protests, who was portrayed by the BBC as the only major opposition figure in Russia and was the only Russian on Time’s 2012 list of the 100 most influential people, seems to have been granted an important pass. In October 2013, Navalny was absolved of a five-year sentence, while receiving a suspended sentence: he is not allowed to run for office until mid-2018, after the presidential elections.

Putin likely chose to release Navalny because his imprisonment could have angered his numerous supporters and made them more determined them to take to the streets. In a time of high instability in other BRICT countries (an acronym coined by Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs for a number of strong emerging countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China –and later updated to include Turkey), particularly Turkey and Brazil, where parts of the population bitterly protested against the ruling government, Putin preferred to appease his population rather than incense it.

Nevertheless, Putin’s decision to impede Navalny from running for office aims to neutralize him as a rising political opponent. This strategic move comes after Navalny proved his potential by winning a staggering 27 percent in Moscow’s mayoral election, where he competed against the Kremlin-appointed mayor.

Navalny on trial

Alexei Navalny and his wife Yuliya after release on 19 July 2013 [by Евгений Фельдман / Новая газета, via Wikimedia Commons]

In September 2013, Alexei Navalny was released just one day after being sentenced to five years in jail in the city of Kirov for allegedly stealing $500,000 worth of timber from a government-owned company while working as an unpaid advisor to the Kirov governor in 2009. He had proposed using a middleman to boost sales for the state timber company. Although authorities have accused him of stealing timber under those contracts, local investigations have found no evidence of corruption.

During his closing statement at the trial, Navalny highlighted the fact that 83 percent of the national wealth was held by half of the Russian elite, without it trickling down to the rest of the population, while the Putin regime is “sucking the blood out of Russia.” Fearless in the face of the establishment, Navalny declared: “If somebody thinks that having heard the threat of this six-year imprisonment I would run away abroad or hide somewhere, they are badly mistaken. I cannot run away from myself. I have no other option and I don’t want to do anything else (…).”

Navalny was released in September, after over 10,000 people protested against his sentence in Moscow, in the largest uncensored protest in recent years. This mass protest was especially impressive in light of the new Putin-introduced restrictive amendments on the law of public rallies, which have considerably diminished free assembly in Russia. The amendments significantly increase the fines for violating rules for holding public events. While the official procedures simply require notifying local authorities on details such as the location and estimated number of participants, authorities often refuse protest permits. Through the amendments, the maximum penalty for individuals has been raised from 1000 rubles (US$60) to 300,000 rubles (US$9,000), while for legal entities it reached a maximum of 1 million rubles (US$30,000). The amendments also include fines of up to 50,000 rubles (US$1,500) if the number of participants exceeds the number indicated in the original rally notification.

A surprising 27 percent in Moscow’s mayor elections

After his trial, Navalny returned to Moscow, where hundreds of supporters welcomed him back. When thanking them, Navalny stressed: “We are a huge, mighty force and we are starting to recognize ourselves as such.” As he had promised, Navalny ran for mayor in Moscow in the September election, held two years ahead of schedule to meet the demands of the residents of Moscow, many of whom had been taking to the streets since 2011 in anti-governmental manifestations. His participation in the trial as gave Kremlin-appointed Mayor Sergey Sobyanin the legitimacy of an elected official. Considering his lack of access to mainstream media, Navalny did extremely well. He obtained over 27 percent of votes, almost forcing Sobyanin into a runoff.

Moscow Russia Kremlin closed during protests [by Victorgrigas, via Wikimedia Commons]

As some analysts have pointed out, a key reason why Putin released Navalny in September was the influence of Sobyanin, who was interested in having Navalny as a counter-candidate in the mayoral election. Sobyanin believed that the opposition leader stood little chance against him and that his defeat would be a blow for the opposition. Moreover, Navalny was a more preferable candidate to the more powerful, popular and influential businessman Mikhail Prokhorov.

However, the massive voter support that Navalny received boosted his position as a formidable opposition leader and shocked the Kremlin, which had done everything to discredit him. Navalny has been using his new-found media attention, secured by his trial and his relative electoral victory, to advance his goals, by advertising his platform and gathering volunteers.

Cruel punishment: blocked from running in the next presidential elections

By the time his appeal was considered in October 2013, Navalny had become too visible and popular for Putin to imprison him, as that would have angered his increasing numbers of supporters. Given his stated intentions to run for the presidential seat, Navalny received a crueler, but less opposable punishment: he is not allowed to run until after the next presidential elections.

Although the punishment was harsh, the opposition leader has not let himself be intimidated by the court’s decision and Putin’s scare tactics. He has not only appealed the decision, but also vowed to continue his political work. In November 2013, he was elected chairman of the unregistered People’s Alliance Party, founded in December 2012 by several of Navalny’s allies, such as Vladimir Ashurkov, head of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption. The party claims to be a liberal and democratic project focused on political reforms and aiming to bring Russia closer to Europe. It remains unregistered, because in May 2013, the existing Alliance of the Greens-People’s Party accused it of using words from their name, when Russian legislation prohibits parties to use other parties’ names, even in part.

Putin: successfully avoiding mass protests?

Moscow rally 24 December 2011, Sakharov Avenue [by Bogomolov.PL, via Wikimedia Commons]

By keeping Navalny out of prison twice, Putin may have managed to avoid mass anti-governmental demonstrations like the ones that have swept Brazil or Turkey. The immediate protests following Navalny’s imprisonment in September indicated these could flare up in Russia. The situation has been especially inflammable since the December 4, 2011, Russian parliamentary elections, which guaranteed an absolute majority of the Duma to then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. Since then, waves of anti-governmental and anti-Putin protests have taken place in the country.

Starting December 5, 2011, protestors in Moscow demanded new elections and called on Putin to drop out of the presidential race. The protests rapidly spread to other parts of the country, culminating in a protest march attended by an estimated 50,000 people in Moscow on Christmas Eve. Further protests were held prior to the March 4, 2012 presidential elections. Disregarding popular outrage, Putin ran and was re-elected as president. On March 5, 2012, over 25,000 demonstrated against him in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. Since then, numerous protests have been held to decry Putin’s authoritarian rule, his oppression of the opposition and some of his outrageous policies, such as the adoption ban prohibiting U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. Most recently, in June 2013, 10,000 to 15,000 protesters participated in anti-Putin demonstration.

No matter how many hundreds of thousands of people have incessantly been taking to the street to voice their concerns and share their opinions, the Russian president and his ruling party have marginalized them and silenced their demands. But, this has only increased the anger of a part of the Russian population, consisting mainly of a liberal middle-class aspiring to progressive decisions from their government and which is feeling increasingly neglected.

With the recent surge of protests at the international level, a smaller event might suffice to unleash the discontent of the Russian population. In both the Turkish and Brazilian waves of demonstrations, the spark that led to the collective flame consisted of specific problems that a limited group of people wanted resolved.

In Turkey, the protests started as an environmental demonstration in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Outraged after police used tear gas and water cannons against a group occupying the park to oppose the construction of a mall on the site, Turkish citizens joined in to support the demonstrators, and the protests gradually grew into a large anti-governmental movement. Meanwhile, the Brazilian government’s decision to increase public transport fees in Sao Paulo triggered city-wide protests which quickly spread across the country.

By releasing Navalny, Putin may have managed to postpone an unrepressed wave of demonstrations again him and his regime for some time. The Russian president may especially be determined to prevent any public manifestations until the already contested February 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, Russia.

Navalny: the ideal candidate?

While he may be the only viable opposition candidate at this moment, Navalny is far from the ideal opposition leader whom the population could propel into a position of power.
Besides being known and supported mostly in Moscow and other big Russian cities, he also has some ultra-nationalist inclinations, manifested by his willingness to speak at ultra-nationalist events. Aside from the current case in which he has been condemned, Navalny has been accused of two fraud cases. He has repeatedly claimed these two are also fabricated. While he may be right, these cases might nevertheless prevent him from becoming a credible and popular opposition candidate at the national level.

Moscow Russia Kremlin closed during protests [by Victorgrigras, via Wikimedia Commons]

Despite these setbacks, Navalny remains one of the opposition’s key members, boldly and constantly calling Putin out. For his oppressive measures, Navalny has accused Putin of striving to establish a feudal regime in Russia, in which he is “a kind of lifelong emperor” until death. He further emphasized that Putin’s regime “does not like phenomena or structures that they cannot control.”

Through his current system of repression, Putin is striving to ensure that no one can even oppose him or his United Russia party. If elections were to be held within the next year, there is no opposition member with enough visibility, activities and popularity, to stand any chance against Putin or members of his entourage. While a considerable portion of the Russian population supports Putin, a growing number of citizens feel marginalized, neglected and abused under what they consider to be an increasingly authoritarian regime. These Russian citizens have started to express their anger and concern through protests since 2011. While Putin might strive to suppress their means of expression, it is unlikely they will give up.

Putin may have dodged the bullet by releasing Navalny. However, it is only a matter of time until Russia, slowly simmering for over two years, will face its own mass wave of protests, like Brazil’s and Turkey’s, targeting Putin. During those protests, Navalny will likely be leading the demonstrators, as he has already done many times in the past, building up his popularity and his record all the while.

This is a non-profit explanation.

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