“Who cares about him?” Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a December news conference when asked about Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin critic who survived a near-fatal poisoning and was arrested last month in Moscow on his return following life-saving treatment in Germany.
The answer came on two consecutive weekends of protests, the largest displays of mass discontent with Putin since 2011. And in a sense Putin answered his own question with the heavy-handed policing of the pro-Navalny demonstrations as well as by imprisoning his most prominent critic.
But does Navalny represent a serious threat to Putin’s rule?
Former British envoy to Moscow Andrew Wood says he believes fear of losing control has been guiding Putin’s tactics in almost all his major decisions, including jailing Navalny, since becoming Russia’s leader two decades ago. And the retired diplomat sees that as the main driver behind Putin’s re-writing of Russia’s constitution last year, paving the way for the former KGB officer to remain in power for years to come.
The fear has only ballooned. Navalny “may be jailed but Putin is the one under siege,” Wood says in commentary for Britain’s Chatham House research group. “Navalny’s return from Berlin to Moscow on 17 January this year set off an explosion. Putin’s 2020 legalized transition towards outright dictatorship is now in serious question.”
Wood points to the surprising size of the protests and their geographical range across all 11 time zones of the Russian Federation, reflecting “a common sentiment across Russia that enough is enough.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which Putin has described in the past as “the greatest political tragedy of the 20th century.” The Soviet collapse was jolting and disorienting in its speed, leaving the Kremlin trailing behind events. It remains for Putin and his closest circle a haunting example of how quickly an authoritarian state can fall apart, say Western diplomats.
Konstantin Remchukov, owner and editor of Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, says Kremlin officials also discuss among themselves the 1917 revolution and whether Czar Nicholas II could have prolonged his rule, if he’d been tougher.
The Kremlin’s conclusion, Remchukov says, is that the czar doomed himself by being weak.
Last year’s amendment of Russia’s constitution, paving the way for Putin to remain in power potentially until 2036, doesn’t appear to have made the Kremlin any more confident about the future, despite the fact that 79% of Russians who voted backed the amendment.
But Remchukov and other experienced observers of the Russian scene harbor doubts about whether Navalny and his political allies can loosen Putin’s grip on power in the near term. He points to a disconnect between a broad swath of Russians and political activists.
Speaking during a virtual panel discussion hosted last week by the Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based research group, Remchukov said ordinary people might be sympathetic to the pro-Navanly protesters but are more interested in getting on with their lives and earning a living.
The real underlying threat to Putin, he argued, rests with the economy — how it performs will determine how long Russia’s president remains in power. “The economic issue is the most serious political factor. If Putin doesn’t have economic growth, he will have problems,” Remchukov said.
Without it, ordinary Russians could become more receptive to the opposition’s disclosures about the corruption of a ruling elite that has gorged and enriched itself, say other observers.
Anti-Kremlin activists have been stymied before, trying to expand their support base and persuade the broader middle class to join the fight against Russia's leadership. In 2012, anti-Putin demonstrations petered out, and did so again in 2019 when tens of thousands of activists began holding regular rallies in Moscow to protest rigged city council elections.
Exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky also appears to see the struggle between Putin and his political opponents such as Navalny as a longer term struggle, although he told The Times of London in an interview Saturday he remains convinced that Russia is in “the final stage of dictatorship.”
Putin’s support is strongest among older Russians who can remember the economic and political turmoil of the 1990s, when their savings disappeared overnight, but mortality will diminish their numbers, Khodorkovsky noted, and the Kremlin is gaining little ground in attracting the support of Russians under the age of 40. Unlike older adults, they get their news and views from the still unruly internet rather than from state-owned television channels.
In the meantime, Khodorkovsky sees repression only intensifying. Most Western diplomats agree the Kremlin will likely turn the screws, having little alternative. The Kremlin crossed a line, they say, with the attempted assassination last year of Navalny, which he and Western governments have blamed on the Kremlin. Putin’s political opponents would likely see any easing as an invitation to escalate their challenge and it could prompt self-doubt in the ranks of the security forces, which so far have remained solid in their loyalty to the Kremlin.
But there’s little consensus among seasoned observers about the timing of the Navalny poisoning and the logic behind it. “The state persecution of him makes him not just a political fighter, but a moral hero,” notes Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research group. He adds, “A conflict is not just fought using brute force; there is also moral strength. And right now, that moral strength is on the side of the protesters.”
Unrest in neighboring Belarus, which has been rocked since August by mass protests against the authoritarian rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, may have reinforced Kremlin fears of Navalny, triggering a determination to get rid of Navalny ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for September, and following them a presidential election in 2024.
“It may have been opportunism,” David Kramer, an assistant secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush, told VOA recently.
The elections could frame Russia’s elective authoritarianism for the next decade and the Kremlin will want to ensure Putin’s United Russia party continues, as it has done since 2007, to dominate the Duma, using any methods necessary to ensure the electoral system, already skewed in the ruling party’s favor, delivers the required managed result. The Duma is Russia’s lower house of parliament.
For Putin and his political opponents, the run-up to September is the next stage in a complex and dangerous struggle for mastery. An opinion poll last week showed Putin’s overall approval rating slipping just a point down since November at 64%. That may relieve the Kremlin and disappoint the opposition, but the protagonists can also spot trends and Putin’s popularity is plummeting among younger people.