Should Putin fear Navalny’s movement? – E. Carnaghan

On the 15th of March, Saint Louis University – Madrid and the OCC welcomed Prof. Ellen Carnaghan from the SLU main campus for the latest installment of their #CrisisTalks lecture series. Prof. Carnaghan discussed the ongoing unrest in Russia surrounding the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and its potential to bring measurable change to the country. Following a brief introduction to Navalny and his career in politics, her talk explored the recent history of protests in Russia and how Vladimir Putin’s well-structured network of power makes it hard to predict what changes may come from this era in Russian history. Here is a summary of the main points and takeaways from the lecture.

Who is Alexei Navalny?

Alexei Navalny’s current confrontation with the Putin regime is nothing new for the Russian lawyer and anti-corruption activist-turned-politician. Navalny has devoted more than a decade of his life to rooting out corruption at all levels of his nation’s government. In 2011, he founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a nonprofit organization that immediately gained attention for its involvement in organizing some of that year’s large anti-government protests. He himself was responsible for delivering a memorable soundbite that was taken and used as a motto during this anti-government movement when he described Putin’s United Russia party as the “party of crooks and thieves” during a radio interview. The foundation has since launched numerous claims of misconduct against Russian politicians and established itself as a consistent force of opposition. In 2013, Navalny entered the political arena for the first time when he ran for mayor of Moscow. He outperformed expectations by taking 27% of the vote, good enough for a second-place finish. Navalny and his foundation spurred protests once again in 2017 with the release of their bombshell documentary, He Is Not Dimon To You, which detailed the alleged history of corruption of the prime minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev. By that time, Navalny had already set his sights on running in the 2018 presidential election. He was ultimately barred from participating due to prior convictions of embezzlement, charges that some consider to be politically motivated. Despite his exclusion, he remained active during the 2018 campaign by organizing “smart voting,” an effort to reduce United Russia’s stronghold on national and regional parliaments by coordinating opposition votes to go to the same party. Navalny is now the leader of Russia of the Future, an opposition party he founded just after the election he was excluded from. This center-left party is based on the ideas of decentralizing power, extending more freedoms to citizens, and reducing government overreach in the economy.

Protest movements in Russia’s recent history

Russia has experienced a number of significant protest movements during Putin’s tenure. In 2004, changes to the pension system were met with demonstrations that even managed to draw the attendance of older citizens as they were the ones most vulnerable to the effects of the changes. The streets were filled again throughout 2007 and 2008 when supporters of opposition parties across the political spectrum voiced their discontent with the Putin-led government during the “Other Russia” protests. The results of elections throughout 2011-2013 were protested for being perceived as unfair. In 2015, Boris Nemtsov, a prominent political figure and outspoken critic of President Putin, was assassinated, bringing tens of thousands out again to march against the government. Prior to the current situation, the most recent mass protests came in 2017-2018. These rallies came in response to further reforms to the pension system but were also driven by anti-corruption sentiment. Navalny was detained before a planned rally in September 2017, adding more fuel to the movement. Despite their frequency and level of support however, the last two decades of civil movements have only been able to achieve mild compromises from the government.

There are several main factors that have mobilized Russian civil society in recent times. One is the emergence of a new generation of politically active voices. Younger people who have never experienced anything other than the Russia of Putin are growing tired of his regime and do not share the appreciation that their parents and grandparents have for the relative stability he has brought. There are also economic forces at play, such as the previously mentioned changes to pensions, as well as the effects of international sanctions and the current pandemic. One noticeable difference in the current movement is that it carries with it the sustained participation of many people who have been showing up over the past 10 years. That core of support is now marching alongside more young people and supporters from outside the major cities as protests in Russia’s Far East have also been applying consistent pressure on the central government.

There are doubts though over the movement’s potential to grow larger. While there have been small increases in Putin’s disapproval rating in recent years, his support has held relatively steady. Recent polling still puts his approval rating above 60%. There are also big differences in how Russians receive the news in a country with one of the worst rankings on freedom of the press. Many people are still tuning in to state TV channels that broadcast a controlled narrative which portrays protests in a negative light. As more and more people utilize the internet for news and communication, there is potential for the reach of these narratives to diminish. Still, criticism has a hard time sticking to Putin because there are many of his supporters who simply will not believe it and others who have grown apathetic to political matters.

Putin’s power-based regime

To describe the power dynamics at play in an authoritarian regime, Prof. Carnaghan used Milan Svolik’s work, Politics of Authoritarian Rule. It states that authoritarians must first address the problem of control. The regime must maintain a balance of power against the majority of its own citizens which are being excluded from civil participation. If the excluded majority becomes dissatisfied and rallies large enough support, it will become too big to control. There is also the problem of power sharing, where those in power must guard against and counter the potential challenges from others within the ruling class. History tells us that it is more common for a regime to be toppled as a result of a coup or internal forces than from a popular movement. However, cracks within a regime, such as security forces dropping out of compliance or political actors changing sides, are hard to see in far in advance. This is what makes it hard to predict if and when an authoritarian ruler will be ousted.

Putin’s grip on power is quite well consolidated. His network includes former colleagues from his time in the security services and he is effective at repressing dissent. He also sits atop a “vertical” power structure where he maintains strong control over the courts and at the regional levels of government. He has already used his influence over the legislature to change the constitution to allow him to run for another term when the current one ends in 2024. That election will be contested, but it is likely that the list of alternative candidates will be restricted, and they will not receive much attention from the press. He is also aided by the fact that his United Russia party sits in the center of the Russian political spectrum, as it prioritizes protecting the interests of individuals rather than carrying out a well-defined ideological agenda. This makes it harder for opposition parties sitting on either the right or left to gather enough support to challenge the party’s power across government institutions.

What could happen next?

The potential for a significant transformation in Russia’s governance could simply be a matter of waiting for generational turnover. Technological advances and continued changes to the demographic makeup of Russian society would seem to point to a declining share of the future population that is both reliant on state-controlled media outlets for information and appreciative of the general stability of Putin’s tenure in comparison to previous eras. Of course, the government could respond with tighter restrictions on internet access, something it has already experimented with, but this would cause noticeable disruptions to day-to-day life and possibly fuel more public discontent.

There is also the element of regime sustainability. At the moment, there is no identified successor to the 68-year-old Putin. Former President Dmitry Medvedev, who was in office during Putin’s four-year reprieve from the presidency, is not seen to be a likely replacement candidate as he was chosen for that role because he would not get in the way. An autocrat’s decision of who to choose and when to announce them to the public is complicated. If the announcement comes too early, they run the risk of seeing support shift away from them before they are ready to relinquish power. If they wait too long, the entire structure could be in danger of collapsing by the time a transition of power is set to take place. Because United Russia is guided by convenience rather than ideology, it is possible that the party’s stakeholders will withdraw their support at the first sign of trouble to salvage their own interests.

Many voices in the international community have spoken out against Navalny’s imprisonment, including the EU, which has gone on to impose sanctions, and President Biden who has had tough words for Putin. However, external forces have historically had little impact on the functioning of the current regime and, for now, Putin continues to enjoy wide support among the Russian public and appears to sit relatively insulated from the current agitation.

This summary was written by Nicholas Pellett, a Master’s student at the Department of Political Science and International Relations of Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus and research assistant at the Observatory on Contemporary Crises (OCC).

To quote this article, please use the following reference: Ellen Carnaghan (2020), “Is Navalny a threat for Putin?,” OCC, March 2021,

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