By Paul Goble
Aleksey Navalny’s return after the Kremlin poisoned him and the three massive and widespread demonstrations his followers carried out have largely destroyed Vladimir Putin’s plans of a year ago to use constitutional changes to usher in an era of “mature Putinism” and stability, Nikolay Petrov says.
The forces available to each of these political leaders are far from equal, the head of the Moscow Center for Political-Geographic Research says; but Navalny has won the first round on points, and Putin and his regime have suffered such a shock that it will be “very difficult” for them to recover anytime soon (theins.ru/opinions/nikolai-petrov/239292).
What is taking place in Russia today as a result is not the start of a revolution, Petrov argues. Rather, it is “the beginning of a new phase of the political crisis connected with the erosion of the legitimacy of Putin and his regime as a whole. The Kremlin leader does not understand this situation or know how to fix it, and that alone gives Navalny the advantage.
The situation in Russia since the start of the year is “different in principle from everything that was true earlier. For the first time during the entire existence of this regime, protests have broken out everywhere and they have taken place under common anti-Putin slogans,” something very different from the past.
The last time there was this much unity among Russians was after the Crimean Anschluss in 2014, Petrov argues, and thus what has occurred in the last few weeks represents a fundamental change in the relationship of citizens and the powers, the rise of what may be called “an anti-Crimea.”
The protests took place even in places where the temperature was many dozens of degrees below zero and involved not teenagers as the Kremlin sought to suggest but rather young adults with a fully formed view of the situation, a demographic far larger than the creative class that had dominated earlier protests.
All this reflected the coalescence of opposition on the basis of fundamental disagreements with Putin and the powers, exacerbated by a sense of social injustice and the difficulties of living with the pandemic. As a result, Russians took part because they are demanding change.
The response of the regime is even more indicative of the changes Russia is going through. Putin remained largely behind the scenes, and most officials and politicians stayed quiet. Instead, in the forefront of the regime’s response were the siloviki, including the Russian Guard. By the February 2nd round, there were more of them than the protesters.
Russians have been angry about Putin’s policies for a long time, going back three or four years at the least. But they are now coming together and coming out to protest these, all the more so because they are being shown by the Kremlin just what kind of a regime Putin has put in place.
As a result, using the words of Leonid Volkov, chief coordinator of the Navalny staff, “the constitutional freedom of assembly in Russia has been transformed from ‘meetings without approval’ to ‘unsanctioned meetings’ to ‘illegal meetings’ and now to ‘prohibited meetings,’” a development that does not end them but makes them more dangerous to the powers.
In Putin’s Russia now, “there is no law enforcement system; there are only defenders of the regime who spit on the rights of the people,” Petrov says. “There is no representative power … There are no political parties beside the de facto party of Navalny with staffs and the lower-ranking portions of the KPRF.” That too works against the Putin regime.
All the more so because there are “citizens ready to struggle for their rights and to demand that the powers respect them, something that inspires hope for the future.” At the very least and despite all his machinations over the last year, Putin has been reduced by Navalny’s return and the protests that have followed to “’a lame duck.’”
Again, Petrov points out, this does not mean that Putin is about to be overthrown anytime soon, but it does mean that the initiative has passed from his hands into those of Navalny and his supporters – and that is perhaps the biggest change in Russia in many years.