Tens of thousands of people, young and old, took to the streets to protest in more than 100 cities and towns in Russia during January. The turnout is unusual in a country where political protests in the past twenty years have been concentrated in big cities. We have asked five experts on Russia what they think will be the consequences of these protests.
Professor, UCL School of Slavic & East European Studies. Host of the podcast "In Moscow's Shadows".
In the short term, the impact of the protests will be less seismic than some suggest. The Kremlin’s control over the security apparatus remains firm, and the majority of the people who came out on the streets are the ‘coalition of the fed up,’ looking for opportunities to express generalised disaffection with the status quo rather than determined enemies of the regime or supporters of Alexei Navalny.
In the longer term, the protests both reflect and accelerate some long-term processes in Russia. The first is the slow delegitimation of the regime, which seems not to have answers to the challenges of the day. The second is the failure of ‘managed democracy.’ The day is coming when the Kremlin will have to choose whether to compromise with society – which will mean more than just some changed spending priorities – or turn to outright authoritarianism. The third is the emergence of genuine politics, as Navalny’s success galvanises others, too, from local civil society to disgruntled Communists.
Senior Research Associate, Conflict Studies Research Centre
In a police state backed up by an environment of lawlessness disguised as an ever larger corpus of repressive laws, persecution of any meaningful opposition will continue as prosecutions, in reality quasi-legal reprisals by a compliant judiciary.
Mendacious internal propaganda operations (state TV, Kremlin-aligned mainstream media and online via trolls and bots) will continue, to try to discredit the opposition through suggestions of collaborationism with Russia's enemies designed to harm Russia, as it has aimed to do with Navalny; and ultimately to neutralize it ahead of this autumn's Duma elections. The aim is long-term regime survival, with the prospect of Putin's tenure extended to 2036.
Externally, aggressive, revanchist behaviour will continue, backed up by influence, information and military operations. Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltics, the Caucasus and Europe will continue to be targeted, along with attempts to expand influence elsewhere, until the money runs out.
For a century, the only way in which change has occurred in Russia has been from the top down. Weaker states have succumbed to popular protests. The Russian regime appears solid, its security forces numerous, society divided, mostly passive but also discontented: fertile ground for surprises and perhaps generation change, but also further brinkmanship.
Nonresident scholar, Carnegie Moscow Center. Founder & CEO of Political analysis firm R.Politik
At the moment, the protests in Russia have subsided. However, that was the first time mass scaled political mobilization took place all over Russia in support of Alexey Navalny - the leader of the so-called non-systemic opposition. The demonstrations have even spread to cities with traditionally conformist sentiments. Almost forty percent of those who participated in the January protests did so for the first time, leading to the de facto “popular legitimization” of Navalny despite Kremlin´s attempt to deliberately discredit him through media campaigns. In addition, the polls show that around one third of Russia’s population might be considered anti-Putin. Previously the protests represented either social discontent or limited liberal demonstrations in the big cities. That means that Putin now faces a more hostile social political environment, and this is something he will have to deal with especially ahead of the September State Duma elections.
However, even as the overall support of Putin is still rather prominent, the regime itself is transforming - from relying on the ‘power of authority’ (based on popular legitimacy) to now resorting to the ‘authority of power’, demonstrating its readiness to repress and suppress discontent. This might lead to the security forces seizing political initiative to a greater extent, by impacting the future of the regime.
Thus, the tension will mount and either the regime will have to learn how to compromise, which is not evident at the moment, or it will lose control over the political situation.
Pavel K. Baev
Research Professor, The Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
Harsher repressions, steeper decline, wider discontent: The intensity of protests took Putin’s regime by surprise, and the response was produced without any consideration to mid-term consequences. It was certainly the experience with suppression of protests in Belarus (which also exploded unexpectedly) that informed the behavior of Russian authorities, even if they might harbor many reservations regarding the survivability of Lukashenko’s dictatorship. Russian protests have been much smaller in scale, and the deployment of brutal police force appears to be more efficient, but the impact on Russia’s domestic stability and international profile is profound and detrimental.
Russia is sinking into a complex and evolving crisis, in which economic stagnation underpins discontent with the corrupt autocratic rule, which is augmented by the fast spread of still uncensored social networks. Repressions can temporarily restore control over streets, but they accelerate social processes causing erosion of governance and isolation of the top beneficiaries of the regime from their support base. Russia’s relations with Europe, which remain of crucial importance no matter what crude statements Foreign Minister Lavrov is uttering, have also deteriorated. It is quite remarkable that Alexei Navalny remains able to communicate with broad audience from behind bars, and his moral leadership is now firmly established.
Associate Professor, Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS)
The ongoing polarization of Russian society has been accelerated by the poisoning and arrest of Navalny as well as different media’s highly divisive coverage of the events. Navalny himself is a divisive figure, even among liberals. However, he has become a symbol of discontent with the incumbent regime, and this discontent has increased and spread geographically and socially.
Putin will under almost no circumstance give in and release Navalny, as it would signal impermissible weakness to foreign pressure and would be a loss of honour. Western governments and Western-dominated international structures will continue to “express their concern”. The sanctions that have been agreed so far are unlikely to make an impression on the Kremlin, and they are also unlikely to influence Russian policy choices.
Repression of the opposition is likely to increase. The regime will continue to crack down on any unsanctioned protests, treating the activists harshly, using all tools at its disposal, including disproportionate violence, mass detainments, legal prosecution, propaganda, and other sorts of pressure. Navalny’s organization has stated that it will suspend street protests until spring. It will be a test of their ability to mobilize, and they will have to find a powerful, uniting slogan.