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Navalny Protests May Be Actually Strengthening Putin’s Support – OpEd

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New poll results raise the disturbing possibility that a sudden outburst of protest activity as with the Navalny demonstrations may not attract as many to his cause as lead to the strengthening of Putin’s position among those groups just begging to turn away from the Kremlin leader, Abbas Gallyamov says.

According to Levada Center surveys,  47 percent of Russians say they support the continuing demonstrations in Khabarovsk over the dismissal of an elected governor there while only 22 percent say they back the Navalny protests against Putin and his regime, the former Putin speechwriter and commentator says (echo.msk.ru/blog/gallyamov_a/2789898-echo/).

In part, he suggests, this difference may reflect widespread anti-Moscow attitudes; “but there is here something besides that.” People viewed the Khabarovsk protests as “defensive.” People were defending themselves and their interests against attack. But the demonstrations in Moscow looked “precisely like a protest against the regime in principle.”

In the latter, “those taking part came out in support of Navalny, and the latter openly says that Putin must go.” That means, Gallyamov says, that “in contrast to the situation in Khabarovsk,” the Navalny demonstrations were not defensive but aggressive. That is, they sought to change the regime rather than to call it back to where it was.

This pattern holds if one compares attitudes toward the Khabarovsk protests to those regarding the Moscow city duma elections in 2019. Those, from the perspective of many, “were not so much ‘protests’ as a struggle for power. And therefore approval of them was also only half as much as for the Khabarovsk demonstrators.”

This contrast in popular attitudes about what are viewed as defensive as opposed to aggressive protests also explains a broader phenomenon. Last summer, when there weren’t any protests on office, 30 percent of Russians told pollsters that they were ready to take part; but now, “when protest has become more than real, that number has fallen to 17 percent.”

This difference may matter more than any fear of repressive actions by the OMON, Gallyamov suggests. And that needs to be factored in into any analysis of the current regime and its relationship to the population.

“Strictly speaking, people do not have any reason to love this power. But they are also not yet prepared to hate it. And thse people look at the stormy activity of the opposition” and are reinforced in their feelings that they are still not prepared and will pull back from such a step rather than take it.

This doesn’t mean that the opposition itself should pull back only that it must be aware that its actions may affect the broader Russian public in ways different than it expects and even help the opposition’s opponent, the Putin regime, the commentator continues. It is simply an analytic point that should not be ignored.

Gallyamov adds that “the struggle for the overthrow of the regime,” one that would change all this calculus, “could begin only after the elections, if the powers that be too obviously falsify them.” In that case, people will protest because they will be defending something not just attacking someone they voted for earlier as is the case with Putin today.

And once Russians can view themselves as defending something rather than being on the attack, they will be far more supportive of protests by others and far more prepared to take part in them on their own.  That is something both the Kremlin and the Navalny team will soon have to reckon with. 

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Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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