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‘This is the road to dictatorship’ Here’s what some of Russia’s top experts expect in the aftermath of Alexey Navalny’s imprisonment

Source: Meduza
Moscow City Court / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Sentencing Alexey Navalny to nearly three years in prison appears to be a watershed moment in Russian politics — an event many are comparing to the jailing of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Kremlin’s assault on dissent among the nation’s elites, which defined much of Vladimir Putin’s early presidency. To get a better sense of what Navalny’s incarceration means for the future of the country’s political system, Meduza spoke to a handful of Russia’s top political analysts and historians. 

Note: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed below belong solely to the authors, and not necessarily to Meduza or the authors’ employers, organizations, committees, or other groups or individuals.

Alexey Makarkin

first vice-president of the Center for Political Technologies

Navalny’s verdict reflects the [authorities’] harder line on the opposition, which fits the general trend. Even before he returned [from Germany, where he recuperated from being poisoned], they adopted new laws on “foreign agent” individuals and legislation to control outreach activities. 

Plus there’s the police practice of charging people with unlawful assembly and felony protest violations, like the verdicts against Konstantin Kotov and Yulia Galyamina. So, when he landed, Navalny knew perfectly well what awaited him in accordance with this trend. 

I think this will continue. The only this is that even some of the authorities’ supporters objected to the crackdown on Moscow’s demonstrations in 2019 [ahead of City Duma elections]. The Levada Center ran a poll and found that Russians weren’t happy about it. People are ready to support the authorities, but they’re not ready to support crackdowns. And now the authorities are trying to keep the general picture clear of anything too negative or upsetting. 

Navalny’s supporters will probably survive his imprisonment. The protest movement’s core has been ready for this for a long time. The core will remain and the protests’ frontier will depend on the degree of [state] pressure and new red flags. 

It will also depend on attitudes toward the people who turn out to protest. There’s an opposition subculture in Moscow, where it’s actually a bonus to be called a “foreign agent.” How will they react if that happens outside the capital? People go to a protest and how do others around them react? Will they feel comfortable or not?

If not, maybe they’ll stop going to demonstrations. Maybe someone goes once or twice and then someone (not the authorities but a relative) says, “What are you doing that for? You know better. On TV, they’re saying it’s all spies and saboteurs, so cut it out.” But it’s another story if that someone says, “It’s your business — your right and decision. Life has gotten worse and they’re bullying you for nothing.”

Will [protesters] be comfortable in their own environments? True nonconformists — those who are willing to demonstrate at any cost — are few and far between. Their numbers are always small. Everything depends on the surrounding atmosphere. Which will prevail: pro-government trends that depict the opposition as foreign enemies or the perspective that the status quo is intolerable and protests are perfectly legitimate? We’ll see which side wins out here.

Imprisoning Navalny doesn’t fundamentally change anything [regarding this year’s parliamentary elections]. It was clear from the start that the opposition groups [without seats in the State Duma] will demand their candidates’ registration and take to the streets during the elections.

Society always grows more politicized around parliamentary elections because there’s more attention on problems and various issues are articulated. Even the moderate, loyal parliamentary opposition still says this. And when elections are held, questions about their honesty arise. This often leads to protests, and Navalny’s verdict could offer an additional boost to such actions, adding some extra emotion, if it lasts until the elections.

The West’s verbal reaction [to Navalny’s prison sentence] will be tough. As for new sanctions, I think the Biden administration will take stock of the existing sanctions and try to understand what works and what doesn’t. Once they understand, they’ll act.

The use of force

‘They put a bag over my head and beat me up’ Moscow protesters report torture and intimidation in police custody

The use of force

‘They put a bag over my head and beat me up’ Moscow protesters report torture and intimidation in police custody

Kirill Shamiev

Ph.D. candidate at Central European University

As the leader of the Russian opposition’s most active branch, Alexey Navalny could rally the largest numbers of people at demonstrations and mobilize them for political aims. That they’ve now “shut him down” demonstrates a drop in the political system’s competitiveness to what you might call “a new low.”

The Russian political regime is considered to be electoral authoritarianism legitimized through elections. When a political opponent [like Navalny] is “closed off” this way, it raises questions about the election procedure’s legitimacy. Generally speaking, this is the road to a personalistic dictatorship locked around one person.

[In 2021,] there will be State Duma elections, and the presidential administration’s goal, I think, is to destroy the Navalny campaign’s organizational structure so it has no opportunity to mobilize opposition politicians — so it can’t mobilize the needed number of votes using Russia’s [declining] socio-economic and political conditions. The Duma elections need to look good from the outside (though they won’t let opposition deputies inside, but the average voter won’t see that).

While Alexey was free, he was a peaceful politician, despite [propagandists’] efforts to portray him as some revolutionary or rebel. All his demonstrations were aimed at a political existence and the democratic struggle. Nature abhors a vacuum, though, and there’s a chance now that other organizations will emerge that are more radically aimed at confrontation with the authorities. 

[This is happening] because the economy today is in a bad state. The coronavirus has hit people’s welfare hard, and the international situation is rough (most likely, there will be some kind of new sanctions imposed). Things are a lot worse than when Navalny was jailed in 2012 and 2013. Back then, the Kremlin had more room to maneuver and make concessions, and there was more money than there is now. Today, the conditions for protests have become more widespread. We’ll have to consider agency: Who comes [to rallies] and who is able to lead [them]? Because leaders are critical.

As someone who studies Russian law enforcement, I don’t believe that the country’s security officials can seize political power in Russia. They’re completely subordinate to the president, and to governors regionally and mayors in the cities. The Kremlin is in perfect control. That they’re being deployed to city streets now is on direct orders. If necessary, they’ll deploy even more. 

People say that security officials are seizing power [in Russia], but let’s take a look at what’s happened. Since the late 1990s, there hasn’t been a single active candidate [for high office] from the security apparatus. There were in the ’90s, but not now. Now, they all serve. From the state’s perspective, this is good. On the other hand, however, they’re subordinate to a single person: the president. Even in the State Duma, no one is even able to coordinate them without the president’s permission. 

[In recent protests,] it’s been disturbing to see the use of horrible stun guns, but the police have also employed the usual means, like clubs, shields, jail sentences, and arresting leaders preemptively. If you compare this with other countries, our police aren’t as rough as you might find in France or the United States, where they use tear gas and stun grenades. In a Western democracy, however, you can later get justice [in case of excessive force by police], suing and winning millions in damages. That’s impossible in Russia.

You can use violence up to the point at which it’s seen as excessive, which is when it starts mobilizing people who are sympathetic to the opposition or who are entirely indifferent. I take a conservative position here: So far, the violence [from Russian law enforcement against opposition protesters] hasn’t reached the level that could mobilize a large mass of people. Over the past three [days] of protests, they’ve detained a large number of people — 10,000. But in how many of these cases was blood spilled? 150–200? These incidents shouldn’t occur at all, of course — people should never be beaten for demonstrating peacefully, but this is politics and it so happens that 150–200 cases isn’t much. It won’t yet look to people like violence was inflicted en masse. 

Regarding the West: we’ve seen a tough verbal response from all the leaders of developed Western countries. In foreign policy, we’re more than likely now to see sectoral sanctions and actions against [the construction of the gas pipeline] Nord Stream 2, but Germany won’t halt it. This is a domestic issue for them; their industry needs gas.

The United States and Europe can impose sanctions on Russian generals, but it’s pointless because they never travel abroad. I’d like to believe that personal sanctions from Navalny’s list will be introduced because we’d see how the Kremlin would react. They even want to make it a felony just to advocate such sanctions.

The situation for the Russian opposition is more positive now with the Biden administration, which is more devoted to democratic values than Trump was. And personal sanctions are scary for the regime in Russia because it relies on the elites. If their wealth is abroad and they’re not allowed back into their homes, that will be problematic, and that’s to say nothing about the “gray money” they’ve got floating around there, too. 

It feels to me like the potential for confrontation is growing and [the opposition] should use it. There’s a window of opportunity now thanks to the Duma elections and Russia’s socio-economic situation.

Vladimir Gelman

professor at the European University at St. Petersburg and the University of Helsinki

[Russia’s] political system rests more and more on repression. The purpose of these repressions isn’t just to punish those against the regime, like Navalny and the members of his team, but also to signal to the general public that they’ll have problems, too, if they misbehave. 

Going forward, everything depends on the scale of [popular] mobilization. The greater the scale, the less likely you are to be punished. We don’t yet have an answer here — we can’t forecast the course of events. The dynamics of mass mobilization are unpredictable. This isn’t a process where you take to the streets once and then everything changes. Typically, there are multiple waves of mobilization. 

Support for social movements from influential allies can influence mobilization. This can be from specific people or organizations. In Latin America, the main groups fighting against authoritarian regimes were labor unions. In many countries, the Catholic Church played a huge role.

Strong organizations like that don’t exist in Russia, and it seriously complicates mobilization, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. We don’t know yet about self-organization among students, many of whom are being arrested at rallies and some of whom are being expelled. Will a student solidarity movement emerge? We know nothing about others’ solidarity. When it comes to very visible individuals, it materializes quickly. The case of [arrested Meduza special correspondent Ivan] Golunov is the best-known example, but we still don’t know how prepared [Russians] are to stand up for unknown people.

We’re seeing how [the watchdog group] OVD-Info is helping detainees. These are very important support elements, but we can’t expect this to lead immediately to millions of people taking to the streets. But we didn’t see this in previous mobilization waves and that’s why protests are growing, though the current wave won’t be the last and it won’t be decisive. More waves are coming.

Before the [State Duma] elections, the authorities will do everything they can to maximize votes for [the ruling political party] United Russia. Those who oppose the Kremlin will make efforts to prevent this from happening. We don’t know yet which side will tip the scale.

The authorities might not hold these elections at all if they’re really afraid. When you perceive severe threats, they affect your perception of a situation a lot more than if you didn’t fear those threats. In politics, this threat-perception mechanism means more than the true scale of these threats. In reality, Navalny’s activity isn’t such a threat to the [Russian] authorities. Sure, it’s annoying that he publishes his exposés and discredits the regime, but the perception that Navalny will stage a revolution is what compels them to resort to such harsh methods.

There’s one problem here: the tail wags the dog. You give the order to break up [the protests] and they tell you: “We can do it, but we’ll need more money and authority.” So you give him more money, then again, then again, and come the fourth round they’re the ones who will say, “We’ll take it from here. Why do we need an unpopular leader who causes all these protests? Let’s break up the leader.” This situation happens all the time in authoritarian regimes, and Putin could face it, too.

Security officials have now unleashed a greater scale of violence. We knew before about all the manifestations of police brutality, but the brutality is usually directed at people who are suspected of criminal activity — people arrested for actions that are unpopular with public opinion. But now its victims are other people — thousands of detainees who haven’t faced this under other circumstances.

I don’t expect a serious response from the West. In the broader context, sanctions create serious problems insofar as international companies don’t want to do business with Russian firms. A lot of them feel that any activity related to Russia is risky and toxic. But, so far, they haven’t been discussing the sanctions that could change Russia’s behavior, and I don’t think the situation with Navalny’s poisoning will fundamentally change the situation. Events inside Russia are what matter now.

The courtroom speech

‘Vladimir the Poisoner’ A translation of Alexey Navalny’s speech in court on February 2

The courtroom speech

‘Vladimir the Poisoner’ A translation of Alexey Navalny’s speech in court on February 2

Andrey Kortunov

Russian International Affairs Council director-general

The fact that they imprisoned Navalny, despite strong public and international opposition, is a harbinger of a deepening split in [Russian] society between those who support the authorities and those who support Navalny and align with his agenda. And the split will deepen. There will be appeals and there’s a chance that his sentence will be overturned, but it’s small.

The authorities’ bet is that the protests will fizzle out. The opposition, meanwhile, will try to escalate the degree of political tension and use the situation during the State Duma elections. The elections will clearly be hard for the ruling party and there will be chances for the non-systemic [anti-Kremlin] opposition. But the elections are still a long way off and we could see other incidents that provoke protests. Also, the state will try to mobilize its own supporters. 

The Navalny factor will now be inescapable at any visits and during any discussions with Russia’s Western colleagues. If Western representatives come [to Russia], one of the first questions will be about Navalny — demands or requests (depending on the nature of the relationship) to meet with him, and calls to release him.

Western partners won’t take seriously the Kremlin’s rhetoric about “independent courts” and the authorities’ noninvolvement. They don’t believe that a separation of powers exists [in Russia].

Ivan Kurilla

professor of history and international relations at European University at St. Petersburg

On the one hand, imprisoning Navalny was completely expected. When he landed, people hoped that he’d be left free, but hardly anyone seriously expected it.

Navalny is forcing the system to exercise police control over the country. The European Court of Human Rights recognized him as a victim, but he was nevertheless sentenced to a prison term. In terms of law and justice, everything has been thrown out the window. Navalny forced the system to move forward like this, without the cover of legality that it used before. 

In 2014, a Russian court convicted Alexey Navalny and his brother, Oleg, of criminal fraud and money laundering. Prosecutors claimed that the Navalnys duped the Russian subsidiary of the “Yves Rocher” company into signing an unprofitable contract. Alexey Navalny was sentenced to 3.5 years probation, while his brother received a 3.5-year prison sentence.

The two men denied the charges, claiming political persecution. In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian count’s verdict was unfair and the Russian government subsequently paid compensation to Navalny directly, but the verdict itself was never overturned. 

The system revealed things that were always there, but now they’re visible to a lot more people who hadn’t been following it before. In other words, the accompanying protests and the dispersal of crowds will have a greater effect, not the fact that Navalny was imprisoned. 

A few years ago, it was possible to say that political methods still governed the [Russian] state — that it was manipulated politics, a hybrid regime, and electoral democracy. There were elections, however hollow, and there were representative bodies that influenced something and adopted laws. It was an authoritarian system, but it had a political course; it was important that there was this political logic. Now there’s a feeling that political forms of government have been abandoned altogether and pure force is becoming all that governs the country. There are no efforts to resolve the crisis politically.

All this begs the question: Will politics return, or will acts of force [completely] replace it? Those responsible are the ones who should fear this. Hybrid regimes persist for many decades, but military regimes survive only briefly, lasting less than a single generation’s lifespan. 

What’s happening now resembles a transition from soft authoritarianism to military rule and a junta. In [Russia’s] case, it’s the security officials, the National Guard, and the FSB, but no one among them knows how to lead the country using political methods. The only political method they understand is bashing people over the head.

Also, the regime used to be balanced between the security apparatus and a political bloc before it was entrusted completely to the security officials, and there’s a risk that this group might begin to wonder: “Why do we need a leader if we’re managing [the] country ourselves?” For example, a general in the National Guard says, “Why should we have to protect the Ozero cooperative at all if we’re the ones in charge?”

It’s unclear how long [the opposition’s] mobilization will last. I’m not certain that it will endure as long as we saw in Belarus, but the social movement that’s turned out the last few times wasn’t just for Navalny — that wasn’t tens of thousands of Navalny-followers. He’s provided those who don’t like the country’s direction with a reason to mobilize. And I don’t even know now if we’ll have elections in any sense. If they happen, it will be much harder for the ruling party. Faith in the authorities has been undermined significantly even among those loyal to the state.

As an optimist, I’m waiting for better days: the return of democratic freedoms. I don’t know how this will happen, whether it will be a schism in the elites or Putin coming to his senses, but something here is possible. But there’s a lot more reason to expect a hardening and several, very difficult years ahead for Russia. 

The darker the situation is now, however, the sooner it will end. The harsher the regime’s measures, the fewer years this era will last.

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Interviews by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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