It is unlikely that the protests that followed the arrest of Alexei Navalny on 17 January will overturn the political system that has governed Russia in one form or another since Vladimir Putin became President of the Russian Federation in March 2000. But Russia’s polity is now broken, and it is most unlikely to be repaired until it is replaced.
The protests, which have brought over 100,000 onto the streets in 180 towns and cities across the vast expanse of Russia, are unprecedented in scale and character, at least in Putin’s Russia. So is the scale of retribution, including, as of 2 February, upwards of 10,000 detentions and arrests.1
At least three questions command attention. First, what is new about the protests, and what factors, immediate and contextual, explain their magnitude? Second, why might it be premature to dismiss the inner strengths and stability of sistema, the system of power that has governed Russia for the better part of two decades? Third, what can be ascertained about the longer-term impact of the Navalny factor on Russia’s future?
In three respects, the protests of 23 and 31 January differed from those that erupted in 2011-2012, 2017 and 2019. First, they are not Moscow protests. Moskvichi made up only 20 percent of the whole. Second, Navalny is now a national figure. The watershed of his transformation from a metropolitan to a national persona was his participation in the country-wide State Duma and local election contests of September 2020, marked by his success in Novosibirsk and climaxed by his poisoning in Tomsk. Finally, in contrast to the 2013 ‘Telegram’ and 2017 Moscow Duma demonstrations, they no longer are single issue protests. Economic well-being (per capita GDP has fallen 30 percent since 2013), the Covid pandemic, administrative abuses and electoral fraud, and of course accumulated disgust at the depth of mendacity, extremes of gluttony and congenital criminality of those who run the country have created amongst Navalny supporters an indignation larger than the sum of these parts.2
The fact is that Putin has been chipping away at his own legitimacy from the time he returned to the presidency in 2012. Zakonomernost’ (conformity to law, consistency) has become important in Russia. During his first two terms, it was one of the bedrocks of Putin’s authority and even the system’s growing authoritarianism. It had the appearance of truth even to those who knew it was built on lies. Appearances also matter. If an emperor has no clothes, he must never say so, let alone boast about it. But that is exactly what Putin did in his ‘castling manoeuvre’ with then President Medvedev in 2011, and he added insult to injury with the constitutional referendum of June 2020, which theoretically allows him to stay in office forever.
At the same time, the governing elite has atrophied. To restate what was said in 2018:
[T]he circle of power has become malignantly inbred….Since the election of 2012, necessary dissonances — Yeltsin era liberals, economists and technocrats, ‘liberal’niye derzhaniki’ (liberal imperialists) and the ‘cosmopolitan’ part of the business elite — have been streamed out of the body politic. Now the influence of those who always were too strong — the siloviki, the custodians of ‘national capital’ and the ideologues of ‘fortress Russia’ — is almost uncontested, and their outlook has become unchallengeable.3
Their outlook has also narrowed. The strategic thinkers in Putin’s circle understand ‘abroad’. At home, the system’s mastodons understand business. The professionals entrusted with maintaining order are not strategic thinkers. It has been years since either the business or the governing elite have produced new ideas, let alone potential leaders. These are not good omens for a system under pressure. Twenty years ago, Putin had a strategy for building power. It is not clear that he has one for maintaining it.
But it is not at all certain that he needs one. What is Navalny’s strategy for taking it away? Social media mobilisation is a tool, not a strategy; ‘you are few, we are many’ is a revolutionary slogan, not a plan for gaining power. Even in their own terms, these formulas are wanting. According to the Levada Center, more than three times as many people approved of Navalny’s actions at the start of February than in May, but their number has risen to only 19 percent; the number who disapprove is 56 percent.4 The level of trust in Putin has actually increased since July 2020 (40 percent then vs 49 percent on 2 February) and has been insignificantly diminished by Navalny’s arrest.5 Moreover, the latest data suggest that the authorities’ performance over Covid (now seen as improving) has a greater impact on public perception than Navalny. Perhaps most deflating of all, whilst 26 percent of Russians have seen Navalny’s celebrated video, ‘A Palace for Putin’, only 17 percent of those who have done so think worse of Putin as a result.6
The fact is that one of Navalny’s principal attractions to his core supporters — his adamant refusal to seek common ground with anyone associated with the system — is also his principal liability. As Nigel Gould-Davies has noted, ‘[he] shows no interest in the kind of alliance between civil society and a more moderate section of the elite that can lead to reform in authoritarian states’.7 Moreover, he has shown no interest in other opposition figures either. In the words of Vladislav Inozemtsev:
So far, the founder of FBK [the Foundation for Combatting Corruption] has not shown himself capable of working in a team, find compromises, bargain [dogovarivat’sya] and build a broad coalition with other leaders — and the majority of opposition figures know it.8
These are the qualities of a revolutionary martyr, not a political leader. A movement led by such a figure is inherently unstable. As Inozemtsev noted on 25 January, it risks disintegration if Navalny is defeated or imprisoned. On 2 February, Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison. On 12 February, his Chief of Staff, Leonid Volkov announced that the ‘unprecedented police violence’ had forced the suspension of protests for several months.9 The reaction amongst regional protesters to this decision from ‘people in Moscow’ has been bewildered, embittered and harsh.10 As Lenin noted in 1905, ‘without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement’.11 Today there is no revolutionary theory, no programme for converting protest into power, no end game that Navalny, Volkov or any of the other principals have articulated.
In considering Russia’s future, it also is important to consider its past. Putin has not only resurrected police power in Russia; he has restored the patrimonial state. In Russia, power and the abuse of power historically have been perceived as inseparable; ‘corruption’ — the subordination of law and institutions to the interests of power elites — is widely seen as a prerogative of authority. What has mattered in times of stress is the cohesion of the elite, its control over the institutions of state and the means of coercion. In Russia, revolutions have succeeded when revolutionaries have broken the instruments of coercion by division or force. In the past, their midwives have been war (1905, 1917). The exception (1991) arose when the elite itself thought it could be the midwife of transformation from the old order to the new.
Putin and the community of fate he has assembled around him have no intention of repeating that ‘experiment’. Those who serve in the ranks of the OMON and Rossgvardiya are most unlikely to join the cause of revolutionaries who despise them and are socially more privileged than they are. A path from the street to power does not exist.
What might exist, thanks to Navalny and despite him, is an opening for those parts of the elite that are marginalised, disaffected and worried about the country’s future. That outer circle might already extend to some of Russia’s boardrooms, its ‘systemic’ as opposed to ‘regime’ establishments, in the regions as well as the centre. It is the gap between Putin’s inner circle and wider elites, between the ideas of ‘state’ and ‘regime’, that is most likely to be the index of systemic stability in Russia. By that measure, the system has begun to wobble, and Putin probably knows it.
1 Pavel Felgengauer, ‘Navalny and Russia’s “Hybrid War” in the Streets’, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol 18, Issue 20 (Washington: Jamestown Foundation, 4 February 2020) jamestown.org/program/navalny-and-russias-hybrid-w…
2 Economic figures from Rosstat, cited in Henry Foy and Max Seddon, ‘Rising poverty and falling incomes fuel Russia’s Navalny protests’, Financial Times, 7 February 2021.
3 James Sherr, ‘Strategic Restlessness: The Latest Stage of Russian Policy?’, Andris Spruds, Maris Andzans, ed., Security of the Baltic Sea Region Revisited amid the Baltic Centenary [Riga Conference Papers, 2018], p 132.
4 Levada Centre, ‘The Return of Alexei Navalny’ [Vozvrashchenie alekseya naval’nogo], 5 February 2021, www.levada.ru/2021/02/05/vozvrashhenie-alekseya-na…
5 Levada Centre, ‘Presidential Ratings and the State of Affairs in the Country’, [prezidentskie reitingi i polozhenie del v strane], www.levada.ru/2021/02/04/prezidentskie-rejtingi-i-…
6 BBC Russkaya Sluzhba, ‘Levada Center: 17% of Russians who have watched Navalny’s film have a worsened attitude towards Putin’ [<Levada-Tsentr>: u 17% rossiyan, posmotrevshikh fil’m Naval’nogo, ukhudshilos’ otnoshenie k Putinu’], 8 February 2021
7 Nigel Gould-Davies, ‘A fortnight that shook Russia…and what next?’ Survival (London: IISS), 4 February 2021 www.iiss.org/blogs/survival-blog/2021/02/russia-al…
8 Vladislav Inozemtsev, ‘The open confrontation of two ‘alfa-males’ [Otkrytoe protivostoyanie dvukh <al’fa-samtsov>], Spektr, 25 January 2021, spektr.press/otkrytoe-protivostoyanie-dvuh-alfa-sa…
9 Max Seddon, ‘Russian crackdown brings pro-Navalny protests to halt’, Financial Times, 12 February 2021.
10 Paul Goble, ‘Navalny Staff’s Unilateral Decision to Suspend Protests May Cost It Allies in Regions, Sidorov Says’, 9 February 2021, windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/02/navalny-staf…
11 V I Lenin, What is to be Done?, www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/i….