By Alex Yeo
''Navalny represents the problems these local movements pose on a much greater scale; a focal point of actual, uncontrolled opposition that provides a credible alternative to what the Putin regime can offer.''
Alexei Navalny, often called Russia’s most viable opposition leader, is once again at the centre of a political crisis for Putin’s regime. Last August, he was poisoned with a nerve agent, from the same family of agents as that which was used to poison Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. After spending time in Germany recovering, he has returned to Russia - where he was immediately arrested.
He has since called for protests over his arrest and released a documentary film detailing, allegedly, a private Palace (in his own words - “It isn’t a country house, or a dacha, or a residence, it’s an entire city, or rather an entire kingdom”) owned by Putin and paid for with the profits of corrupt enterprises. Protests have since broken out, with thousands protesting across Russia.
While this is certainly the most covered story about a protest in Russia for some time, it isn’t an isolated incident of unrest when looking at the last two to three years. So what’s brought Russia to this point?
Opposition under Putin
Opposition in Putin’s Russia has, since the mid-2000s, borne the moniker of “controlled opposition,” and this is not without merit. Controlled opposition is exactly what it says on the tin - political parties or figures which wear the dressings of an actual opposition, but in fact, are in league with the ruling regime. Such an opposition acts as, more or less, an official font for public anger, which can then be easily controlled. Parties such as A Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (an extremely right-wing party, unlike the British Lib Dems) can be counted among them.
Yet, recently, cracks have begun to be seen on a regional level. Firstly, in 2018-2019, there was an almost unprecedented backlash and protest movement in Ingushetia against a border deal with neighbouring Chechnya that saw the regional Head, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, resign. Secondly, a protest movement started in 2020, is still ongoing in the far-east region of Khabarovsk, over the arrest of the popular LDPR governor Sergei Furgal.
An unwelcome challenge
While the two above movements are regional, local movements, the protests over the arrest of Navalny provide a wider national challenge the Kremlin would rather do without at present. So why was Navalny arrested in the first place?
Simply put, Navalny represents the problems these local movements pose on a much greater scale; a focal point of actual, uncontrolled opposition that provides a credible alternative to what the Putin regime can offer. Further, Navalny is outspoken and public in his denunciations of the Putin regime, drawing attention to scandals and corruption they’d rather keep quiet - such as the Black Sea Palace at the centre of the documentary released by Navalny.
Navalny is not the perfect candidate to replace Putin - such a task is something that very few politicians worldwide could be able to do. Navalny has an ambiguous stance on nationalism, sometimes supporting and defending nationalist causes, while also being the only Russian political leader in favour of same-sex marriage, and one of the few Russian politicians who have voiced support for Black Lives Matter. This ambiguity has the potential to reach a large number of Russians when it comes to finding popular support.
It is perhaps these factors combined, as well as the desire for anyone who isn’t part of the “party of crooks and thieves” to be in charge, that have made Navalny such a popular opposition leader - and have put a target on his back.
Previous opposition leaders in Russia have met cruel ends. Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015, right outside the Kremlin. Oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed in 2005 for politically motivated reasons. He was released in 2013 and has since been in an unofficial exile in London. Navalny is such an issue for the Kremlin precisely because even in the face of such persecution, he came back to Russia anyway.
It is unlikely that this crisis will spell the end of Putin’s Russia, however. The Kremlin has weathered storms such as this before, but due to the unrest in the regions and the poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic, it will certainly be a harder storm than most. Perhaps the Kremlin will listen and back down - perhaps it may not, and even double down.
Even if the storm is weathered, and Navalny is jailed, Russia is still on the precipice of political crisis. There is currently no-one in the Russian Government capable enough to replace Putin - there may yet be one in Navalny.
Alex Yeo is a monthly contributor for DemographicaUK. Formerly a Master's Student at the University of Glasgow, he specialises in Russian and Eastern European politics, society and culture, specifically in the Caucasus. He has further interest in Authoritarianism, Democracy, Islam and Islamism (and the misunderstandings thereof) and World Politics in general. He is currently in the process of applying for a PhD.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of DemographicaUK as a company.