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Putin Has Learned From Belarus in Handling the Navalny Protests

The Russian regime has barely started to tap its vast toolkit for violence and intimidation.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Police detain a protester during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Moscow on Jan. 23.
Police detain a protester during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Moscow on Jan. 23. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images

It’s hard not to be impressed by the energy and scale of Saturday’s angry protests all across Russia against the imprisonment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. But it would be rather short-sighted to forget that the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin long ago mastered the art of dealing with manifestations of popular discontent. The Kremlin has barely started to tap its vast toolkit for violence and intimidation.

Of course, the Navalny team’s success at mobilizing an estimated 40,000 supporters in downtown Moscow and smaller numbers in more than120 cities elsewhere in Russia was no small feat. The geographic spread was wider than that of any other protest wave during Putin’s 20 years in power. Some cities saw their first demonstrations in several years. Yet this accomplishment may turn out to be more ephemeral than it appears. And if the recent history of street protests in Russia is anything to go by, even initial gains might ultimately be turned to the regime’s advantage.

While the Kremlin looks a bit silly when it portrays the protests as having been instigated by Western governments, its narrative that Russia is under threat of a “color revolution”—such as those in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine—is designed to serve a purpose: empowering the darkest and most conservative elements of Putin’s regime. These figures will almost certainly seek to put Russia’s domestic and foreign policy on a new, more confrontational trajectory.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the energy and scale of Saturday’s angry protests all across Russia against the imprisonment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. But it would be rather short-sighted to forget that the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin long ago mastered the art of dealing with manifestations of popular discontent. The Kremlin has barely started to tap its vast toolkit for violence and intimidation.

Of course, the Navalny team’s success at mobilizing an estimated 40,000 supporters in downtown Moscow and smaller numbers in more than120 cities elsewhere in Russia was no small feat. The geographic spread was wider than that of any other protest wave during Putin’s 20 years in power. Some cities saw their first demonstrations in several years. Yet this accomplishment may turn out to be more ephemeral than it appears. And if the recent history of street protests in Russia is anything to go by, even initial gains might ultimately be turned to the regime’s advantage.

While the Kremlin looks a bit silly when it portrays the protests as having been instigated by Western governments, its narrative that Russia is under threat of a “color revolution”—such as those in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine—is designed to serve a purpose: empowering the darkest and most conservative elements of Putin’s regime. These figures will almost certainly seek to put Russia’s domestic and foreign policy on a new, more confrontational trajectory.

Beyond their unprecedented geographic scale, the other significant fact is that the protests were unsanctioned by the authorities, unlike the massive demonstrations in late 2011 and early 2012 following rigged parliamentary elections. The 100,000 people who took to Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2011 weren’t risking all that much because the demonstration had been formally authorized. In 2021, the picture is very different, particularly since the State Duma has been churning out new packages of repressive laws aimed to curtail civil society and political activism. The potential price for taking to the streets to protest against Putin is much higher today than it was a couple of years ago, and Russians now face hefty fines and prison terms for repeated violations.

What gets overlooked is the sophistication that the Kremlin has shown in recent years in addressing dissent across the country.

Yet we have seen all of the elements of this movie before—even if they haven’t appeared together. The most similar protests were a string of anti-corruption demonstrations in March 2017 following Navalny’s expose about then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged empire of ill-gotten wealth. Back then, protests took place in about 100 cities. They, too, were unsanctioned, and although penalties were less severe than they are today, they still attracted similar number of protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg compared with the protests last weekend. Back then—and again in the summer of 2019, when close to 10,000 people took to the streets of Moscow following Navalny’s call to protest the inability of opposition candidates to register for local Moscow elections—the Kremlin responded with limited but escalating repression. Dozens of activists who pushed police officers or threw paper cups in their direction were identified and imprisoned. Police brutality also discouraged average people from taking part. Still, like every protest wave in recent decades, these Navalny-led demonstrations all ended the same way: The combination of regime pressure and the protesters’ fatigue eventually translated into thinner and thinner crowds.

Quite understandably, police brutality of the type seen once again last week on Russian streets attracts global media coverage and the rightful indignation of Western observers and liberal-minded Russians. But the Russian security services have clearly learned the lesson of neighboring Belarus—that excessive violence only causes more trouble—and they are trying to manage a delicate balance as they handle the new wave of Navalny-inspired protests. This explains the somewhat restrained behavior by the police last week—though to be sure, they were restrained only relative to the typically brutal standards of Russian law enforcement under Putin.

What also gets overlooked is the sophistication that the Kremlin has shown in recent years in addressing dissent across the country. During the last decade, Russia has become a country of protests, with many national and local issues bringing people to the streets. In 2019 alone, there were nearly 1,500 street protests in Russia. Most of the time, the Kremlin has chosen to ignore the protesters and wait until their enthusiasm evaporated.
For Putin, the protests also serve the useful purpose of demonizing the opposition as radicals seeking a bloody revolution.

This is precisely what happened in Khabarovsk, a city in the Russian Far East, which saw more than 100 days of protests and up to 60,000 people on the streets following the arrest of the popular local governor Sergei Furgal. Last July, these vast and unexpected protests outside of Moscow were portrayed by many as a serious challenge to the Putin regime. But instead of trying to solve the problem or suppress a grassroots movement, the Kremlin decided that it was better to let the protesters blow off steam and not unleash the police. The effectiveness of these tactics was proven last Saturday during the pro-Navalny rally. Khabarovsk, which only a few months ago had been dubbed the new hope of the Russian pro-democratic movement, mustered only a modest crowd of 1,500.

It seems that the Kremlin is betting that the right combination of calculated brutality, legal pressure, and patience will pay bigger dividends than broadly cracking down. So far, the system has demonstrated enormous resilience. Despite a moribund economy, widespread popular fatigue with Putin, and the mounting anger generated by the COVID-19 pandemic and declining household income, the Kremlin has managed to check most of its important boxes. The elites are mostly united behind the regime, law enforcement and interior troops remain loyal, and the bulk of the population is too disinterested or scared to present a serious challenge to Putin’s rule.

That’s why it’s wishful thinking to portray a few tens of thousand people turning out in Moscow (with a population of nearly 13 million) or St. Petersburg (with more than 5 million) as a real danger to the regime. Such protests can be tolerated, and, if need be, suppressed in order to demonstrate that any major challenges will be ruthlessly and violently put down. For Putin, the protests also serve the useful purpose of demonizing the opposition as radicals seeking a bloody revolution, which is why rare incidents of violence by protesters on Saturday were a precious gift to state propaganda, or as alleged puppets of Western intelligence agencies. It is very hard to see how weekly protests, even if they continue like in Belarus, will somehow force a regime willing to poison a prominent opposition leader with a deadly nerve agent to simply let Navalny go free.

All of that raises uncomfortable questions about whether the opposition has a realistic strategy beyond channeling pent-up outrage from various parts of society. Absent any major unpredictable developments, the Kremlin seems content to keep Navalny behind bars. Navalny has proven time and again that he can win battles in the digital domain and chip away at the legitimacy of the Putin regime. In that sense, his recent documentary about Putin’s palace with more than 80 million views on YouTube in less than a week is a major success. But the hard men in the Kremlin have repeatedly shown that they are no slouches when it comes to battling existential threats. So far, at least, they don’t appear to see Navalny’s supporters on the streets within that category.

Alexander Gabuev is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Twitter: @AlexGabuev

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