In late January, mass peaceful protests erupted across major Russian cities including Moscow. The demonstrations were triggered by the arrest of Alexei Navalny – one of Putin’s top critics – who was later sentenced to 3½ years in prison. The opposition leader recently made headlines when he returned to Russia after surviving an assassination attempt by the Russian government. Widespread protests and Navalny’s sentencing are both symptoms of a longstanding record of corruption and human rights violations in the Russian Federation.
Amidst Navalny’s arrest and trial, tens of thousands of demonstrators across the country have taken to the streets in protest. The opposition leader has repeatedly urged his supporters to demonstrate, telling them, “Don’t be afraid, take to the streets. Don’t go out for me, go out for yourself and your future.”
On January 31st, over 5,100 civilians were arrested due to their involvement in demonstrations. Riot police have been violent towards peaceful protestors, beating them with batons and using stun guns. As demonstrators continue to be detained in Russia, many civilians have been agitated further by the continual and violent crackdown on civil society as well as the level of corruption that is prevalent amongst government officials.
Human Rights Watch outlined the deterioration of the human rights situation in Russia in a 2019 report. Violations include violence against peaceful protesters, as well as an “overwhelming show of force, detentions, and rushed criminal prosecutions,” which occurred in the case of Alexei Navalny. Furthermore, the Kremlin has severely restricted freedom of expression, enacting widespread censorship of the internet as well as extensive fines for non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and independent media.
Navalny, one of Putin’s top critics and the primary subject of January’s protests, is a lawyer, politician, and head of Progress, the Russian Opposition party. In 2011, he founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an organization dedicated to exposing electoral fraud amongst Russia’s top government officials. He was arrested that year and served a 15-day sentence after his foundation mobilized demonstrators against Putin and the Russian parliamentary elections.
Navalny began his political career in 2013 by running in Moscow’s mayoral race with a largely nationalist campaign, which was criticized for being anti-Muslim and incredibly restrictive towards immigration. While he did not go on to be mayor of Moscow, Navalny cemented his position in the Russian political scene. Though he ran a campaign to compete in the 2018 presidential election against Vladimir Putin, the Central Electoral Commission quickly barred him from the race, citing embezzlement charges. Navalny claims the 5-year sentence – which was ultimately suspended – was politically motivated, an attempt by the Kremlin to remove a threat to Putin’s presidency.
In August 2020, Alexei Navalny spent several months recovering in Germany after being poisoned by the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service). While working with the investigative group Bellingcat, Navalny was able to record Russian operative Konstantin Kudryavtsev confessing that FSB agents had planted the nerve agent Novichok into the opposition leader’s underpants during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow, but that the assassination attempt had not gone as planned.
The Russian government has a long history of poisoning political dissidents. In 2018 the same nerve agent was used to target former Russian military officer and MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
Putin’s Grasp on Power
Putin’s popularity has been gradually falling in recent years, due to rising inequality and an increase in the national retirement age. In 2018 the retirement age for men was changed from 60 to 65 and from 55 to 60 for women. As a result, Putin’s public approval ratings dropped to 59% in May 2020, compared to his record high of 87% approval in June 2015.
Putin’s term is set to end in 2024, but the president has made several moves that may indicate that he plans to hold onto power for much longer. According to political science professor Brian D. Taylor, Putin seems to be leaning towards stepping down as president but continuing to exert control in a new position in the Russian government. Experts suggest that his recently proposed constitutional reforms point to a larger scheme. Immediately after Putin announced constitutional reforms, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his whole cabinet resigned. Medvedev will continue to work as a national service advisor to the president. The reforms include reducing the power of the presidency and granting more responsibilities to Parliament and State Council. Although it is difficult to predict Putin’s actions in the future, analysts believe this move was made to give future presidents a less powerful role, securing Putin as Russia’s long-standing ruler.
Foreign ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States have announced that Navalny’s arrest is politically motivated. In a joint statement, the world leaders condemned the Kremlin’s attempt to suppress Putin’s opposition. American president Joe Biden has also put pressure on Putin urging him to release Navalny as well as the citizens who have been detained for peaceful protest. It is unclear if international pressure will sway the Russian president, who often stands his ground despite global criticism.
In this developing situation, the will of the Russian people should not be understated. At his court hearing, Navalny thanked protesters stating, “I’d like to express my support to those who take to the streets, because they are the only and last barrier that prevents our country from crawling down into complete degradation. A barrier that prevents authorities from stealing everything.”
With the current level of corruption and concentration of power within the Russian government, it is difficult to see major shifts in power in the near future. However, the push from everyday Russians and a refusal to simply accept the political situation is admirable. It is a notable indicator that the once perfect facade of Putin’s control over Russia is slowly falling apart.