On April 20, tens of thousands of people across Russia protested against the imprisonment of opposition leader Aleksey Navalny. Navalny was arrested in January, when he returned to Moscow after spending several months in Germany recovering from a poisoning attack, which he blames on Russian authorities. He has been on hunger strike for the last three weeks and his condition is believed to be critical.
The authorities responded to Wednesday’s nationwide rallies by declaring them illegal and arresting more than 1,700 protesters. They also threatened to designate Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his network of regional offices as “extremist organisations”.
There was a time when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin didn’t need to ban every opposition rally, arrest protesters by their thousands, or poison his political rivals. But today Putin is on the defensive, as evidenced by the surge of unprecedented repression.
Over the last ten years, Navalny cultivated Russia’s most potent and well-organised opposition network, which now encompasses all the key regions of the vast country. But the movement’s extensive reach is not tied only to Navalny and his leadership capabilities. It also reflects a tectonic social shift that occurred in Russian society in recent years.
Never before since the collapse of communism in 1991 have so many Russians, many of them in the early 20s, been eager to defy a very real threat of violence and incarceration.
For most of the two decades of Putin’s rule, a majority of Russians prioritised stability over progress. Ever since 2017, however, Russians have been expressing a clear desire for change, as seen in the results of multiple opinion polls. Putin himself acknowledged this demand in remarks dedicated to the opening of the new electoral season in February.
The most significant sign of Putin’s desperation to contain this new desire for change is his government’s attempt to classify Navalny’s movement as an extremist organisation. Such a move would not only criminalise Navalny’s millions of active and passive supporters, but also result in the curtailing of the most basic rights and freedoms of Russians. An efficient clampdown is hardly feasible without severe restrictions on the Internet, given that the operation is already largely run from outside Russia. That would entirely change the nature of Putin’s state. Mass repression and isolation from the rest world have never been a part of the informal social contract between Putin and the people of Russia. This is simply not how Russians would like to live.
Repression is Putin’s last resort. As his state of the nation address on Wednesday showed, he has nothing new to say, nothing to inspire the nation with. It is not inconceivable that he could try and pull off a new geopolitical stunt, like reunification of Russia and Belarus (an ominous meeting between Putin and Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko was under way at the time of the publication). But it is doubtful that it would produce anything remotely similar to the magic effect the annexation of Crimea had on his approval ratings in 2014.
Instead of inspiration, his confrontation with the West and an increasingly oppressive way of ruling the country are causing fear and anxiety in Russian society. A poll conducted by the Levada Centre in March showed that the number of Russians constantly fearful of a new world war nearly doubled since 2008, reaching 62 percent. The same poll also demonstrated that the number of people fearing mass repression grew from 17 percent in 2008 to 52 percent today.
But the Russian opposition is also lacking in a big gripping idea – a dream millions of people would want to pursue. In 1917, it was a society free from social division and exploitation. In 1991, it was the return to political and economic normality after seven decades of totalitarianism. During Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in 2014, it was integration into the European Union. There is nothing as powerful on offer in today’s Russia.
Navalny built his movement on anti-corruption slogans. The 116 million views on his YouTube video exposing Putin’s luxurious Black Sea residence suggest that his anti-corruption agenda has a very significant impact. Indeed, it does draw people into street action. But so far not in numbers sufficient to start a revolution or inflict meaningful change.
It is hard to dispute that top level corruption in Russia is extraordinary, but ordinary Russians don’t encounter much corruption in their everyday lives. In fact, it was during Putin’s years that much of the petty corruption was eliminated through the streamlining and digitalisation of citizens’ interactions with the state. Greedy traffic cops have been largely replaced with speed cameras. Government services are processed either online or in slick open-plan service centres, where a bureaucrat has a significantly reduced chance of soliciting a bribe.
Since his presidential campaign in 2018, Navalny has been shifting his agenda to the left, highlighting the issues of social injustice and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. His movement launched a teachers’ and a medical workers’ union in order to rally support among the two largest clusters of severely underpaid public sector workers.
Nevertheless, Navalny’s “Beautiful Russia of the Future” – the title of his 2018 presidential programme which became a widely used meme – is still lacking specific contours, especially geopolitical ones.
The inherent deficiency of the Russian opposition movement and its main difference from any other liberal movement in Eastern Europe is its inability to offer a viable project for fully-fledged integration into Europe.
Russian opposition politicians, such as the assassinated Boris Nemtsov, did attempt to put EU integration on the agenda. But the realistic assessment has always been that wide-spread Russophobia and ignorance about Russia’s social and even geographic realities, such as the bulk of the Russian population living in geographical Europe, will remain an insurmountable obstacle at least until the final days of the Cold War generation.
Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia were crucially dependent on the promise of European integration. Russians are no different from other East Europeans in accepting the superiority of the Western political model, but they can hope for none of that. It wouldn’t have been the case had the West opted for a synchronised integration of post-Soviet countries, which would have prevented such conflicts as the one now raging in Ukraine’s Donbas. Instead it opted for what most Russians see as imperialist divide and rule tactics in post-Soviet space, aimed at containing Russia, no matter whether it’s authoritarian or democratic.
The political choices Russians make largely stem from their experiences after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. A recent New York Times article about Putin’s poor management of the COVID-19 crisis, which led to some of the worst death rates in the world, contained a staggering factoid: Excessive death rates attributed to the turmoil of the 1990s still considerably exceed those attributed to the pandemic.
Based on these experiences, Russians can realistically conclude that a successful anti-Putin revolution will likely plunge them into a new cycle of misery, while an ignorant and triumphalist West will be jeering at the further disintegration of their country.
This, coupled with the essential failure of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution to undo the oligarchic mafia state, serves as a major deterrent against an anti-Putin uprising. A very thorough overhaul of their Russian strategy by the US and the EU could change those attitudes. But the question is whether Western politicians want a truly democratic Russia, or if retaining an “evil empire” in the east is what serves their personal agendas best.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.