It's hard not to be impressed by the energy and scale of the angry protests across Russia on Saturday against the imprisonment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. However, it would be rather short-sighted to forget that long ago the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin mastered the art of dealing with manifestations of popular discontent. The Kremlin has barely started using its extensive toolkit for violence and intimidation.
Of course, the Navalny team's success in mobilizing an estimated 40,000 supporters in downtown Moscow and a smaller number in more than 120 cities in other parts of Russia was no small feat. The geographic spread was greater than any other wave of protests during Putin's 20-year term. Some cities have seen their first demonstrations in several years. However, this feat may turn out to be more short-lived than it seems. And if the recent history of street protests in Russia matters, even initial profits could ultimately be turned to the regime's benefit.
While the Kremlin looks a bit silly when portraying the protests as instigated by Western governments, its narrative that Russia is threatened by a "color revolution" – like those in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine – is meant to serve one purpose: empower the darkest and most most conservative elements of Putin's regime. These numbers will almost certainly attempt to turn Russia's domestic and foreign policy on a new, more confrontational path.
Aside from their unprecedented geographic scale, the other important fact is that the protests were not approved by the authorities, in contrast to the massive demonstrations in late 2011 and early 2012 following rigged parliamentary elections. The 100,000 people who came to Moscow's Bolotnaya Square in 2011 did not risk too much because the demonstration was officially approved. In 2021, the picture looks very different, especially as the State Duma has issued new packages of repressive laws to curb civil society and political activism. The potential cost of taking to the streets to protest Putin is much higher today than it was a few years ago, and Russians now face heavy fines and imprisonment for repeated violations.
However, we've seen all of the elements of this film before – even if they didn't appear together. The most similar protests were a series of anti-corruption demonstrations in March 2017 after Navalny exposed the alleged realm of ill-gotten wealth of then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. At that time, protests took place in around 100 cities. They too were not sanctioned, and although the sentences were less severe than they are today, they still attracted a similar number of protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg compared to last weekend's protests. Back then – and again in the summer of 2019, when nearly 10,000 people took to the streets of Moscow after Navalny protested the opposition candidates' inability to register for local elections in Moscow – the Kremlin responded with limited but escalating repression. Dozens of activists who pushed police officers or threw paper cups in their direction were identified and detained. The brutality of the police deterred even ordinary people from participating. However, like every wave of protests in recent decades, these Navalny-led demonstrations all ended the same way: the combination of regime pressure and protesters' weariness eventually resulted in thinning crowds.
Understandably, the brutality of the police, as witnessed again last week on Russian streets, draws worldwide media coverage and the justified outrage of Western observers and liberal-minded Russians. But Russian security services have clearly learned the lesson from neighboring Belarus – that excessive violence only causes more trouble – and they are trying to strike a delicate balance in dealing with the new wave of Navalny-inspired protests. This explains the somewhat reluctant behavior of the police over the past week – although they were only withheld in relation to the typically brutal standards of Russian law enforcement under Putin.
What is also overlooked is the sophistication the Kremlin has shown in tackling disagreements across the country in recent years. Over the past decade, Russia has become a country of protest, with many national and local problems bringing people to the streets. In 2019 alone there were almost 1,500 street protests in Russia. Most of the time the Kremlin has chosen to ignore the protesters and wait for their enthusiasm to dissipate.
This is exactly what happened in Khabarovsk, a city in the Russian Far East, where protests and up to 60,000 people took to the streets for more than 100 days after the arrest of popular local governor Sergei Furgal. Last July, these huge and unexpected protests outside Moscow were presented by many as a serious challenge to the Putin regime. But instead of trying to solve the problem or suppress a grassroots movement, the Kremlin decided it was better to let the protesters off steam and not unleash the police. The effectiveness of this tactic was proven last Saturday during the Pro Navalny rally. Khabarovsk, which a few months ago had been called the new hope of the pro-democracy movement in Russia, only gathered a modest crowd of 1,500.
It seems that the Kremlin is betting that the right combination of brutality, legal pressure, and patience will pay greater dividends than, by and large, crackdown on them. So far, the system has shown enormous resilience. Despite a dying economy, widespread population fatigue with Putin, and the mounting anger generated by the COVID-19 pandemic and falling household incomes, the Kremlin has managed to tick most of its important boxes. The elites are largely united behind the regime, law enforcement and domestic forces remain loyal, and most of the population is too disinterested or frightened to seriously question Putin's rule.
Therefore, it is desirable to portray tens of thousands of people in Moscow (with nearly 13 million inhabitants) or St. Petersburg (with more than 5 million inhabitants) as a real threat to the regime. Such protests can be tolerated and, if necessary, suppressed to show that greater challenges are ruthlessly and violently put down. For Putin, the protests also serve the useful purpose of demonizing the opposition as radicals aiming for a bloody revolution, which is why rare cases of violence by demonstrators on Saturday were a valuable gift for state propaganda or as alleged puppets of Western intelligence agencies. It is very difficult to see how weekly protests, even if they continue as in Belarus, will force a regime ready to poison a prominent opposition leader with a deadly nerve agent to simply release Navalny.
All of this raises uncomfortable questions as to whether the opposition has a realistic strategy that goes beyond channeling pent-up outrage from different parts of society. With no major unpredictable developments, the Kremlin appears content to keep Navalny behind bars. Navalny has proven time and again that he can win battles in the digital arena and destroy the legitimacy of the Putin regime. With that in mind, his latest documentary on Putin's palace is a huge hit, with more than 80 million views on YouTube in less than a week. But the tough men in the Kremlin have repeatedly shown that they are no slouch when it comes to tackling existential threats. At least they don't seem to see Navalny's followers in that category on the streets yet.