History confirms that every dictator has a sell-by date and that may fast be approaching for Vladimir Putin. Putin has ruled Russia with an iron hand but his oligarchic control is now facing a serious challenge. He is in the saddle since two decades and exceedingly loves power. His neighbour Tayyab Erdogan is in the same league but has deftly handled the situation. For more than a decade, the Kremlin has used every tool at its disposal to keep Russians off the streets wielding fear to make protesting against Putin seem dangerous. And yet in defiant scenes in cities across Russia, from St Petersburg to Vladivostok and even in Yakutsk, where protesters braved temperatures below -50C, tens of thousands of Russians sent a message to a Kremlin that has squeezed out all opposition in Russia: enough is enough.
The spark was the arrest of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader allegedly poisoned by the FSB. But many of the tens of thousands out in Moscow said that the problems went deeper, tied to Putin and his two decades of control over the country. As police fought to retake control of city squares, some protesters fought back, throwing snowballs and trading blows with officers in body armour. Many more chanted for Putin to leave, swapped jokes, filmed Instagram stories, and ran to stay one step ahead of the police, who chased them across the city.
Since Navalny’s arrest, tensions have risen further after his team released a video in which it alleged that Putin had a luxurious palace built on Russia’s Black Sea at a cost of $1.37 billion, and allegedly financed by associates of Putin and what they claimed was “the biggest bribe in history.” The video has been viewed more than 87 million times giving allegations against Putin mass exposure, and potentially embarrassing Russia’s strongman leader at a time when millions of ordinary Russians are struggling with the coronavirus crisis and its impact on the economy. The Kremlin denies any relationship between Putin and the palace. Last week shaped up as perhaps the toughest confrontation between Putin’s regime and his political nemesis, Navalny, his strongest political rival, as the regime opts for a tougher, more authoritarian approach.
Last Saturday’s protests were one of the largest demonstrations against Putin’s rule in the past decade. More than 2,500 people were arrested at dozens of unsanctioned rallies across the country calling for the opposition leader’s release from jail, as turnout far surpassed many protesters’ expectations. The demonstrations were some of Moscow’s largest since 2012, when more than 100,000 came out to protest against flawed elections, as well as Putin’s plans to return to the Kremlin for a third term.
Navalny’s allies hope that they can force the Kremlin to release him through a show of strength but it is unclear whether the protests will break the government’s resolve to send the determined Putin critic to prison for as long as a decade. Public protests have saved Navalny from prison before. In 2013, he was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly embezzling funds from a timber company in the city of Kirov. Navalny’s advisers said they believed that the 2013 strategy would work in 2020 but the protests would have to be far larger, because Navalny had grown from simply being an enemy of the Kremlin to someone whom Putin had described as a “traitor”.
Analysts said it was unlikely that Navalny would be released from prison this time but that the strong turnout in cities across the country would make an important statement. It is reported that Navalny is seen by the Kremlin and Russian security services not as a valid opposition politician but an enemy of the state, so authorities would likely disregard pressure from Russian street protests and from Western diplomats. The Kremlin has repeatedly branded Navalny a CIA agent. Navalny’s protest movement and why Putin fears it and warns Russians against pro-Navalny protests and he has detained opposition activists.
The protests came after new Russian laws have allowed authorities to brand individual activists as foreign agents and have made it more difficult to express dissent, organise and protest. It follows constitutional changes last summer that gave Putin the opportunity to stay in power until 2036. Authorities opened a criminal case claiming organisers of the protests were targeting children to join rallies. Hours before the protests, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation released a call on Russians to defy fear and take to the streets to protest against lies, thieves and lawlessness. It claimed that the drive against Putin was supported by the majority now and that it is the duty of every Russian to join the struggle.
Navalny was poisoned with a chemical nerve agent in August, an attack he says Putin ordered. He was arrested at passport control when he flew home from Germany, where he had been treated for the poisoning. A court locked him up over allegations that he violated the terms of a suspended sentence in a fraud case, a case that the European Court of Human Rights has declared was political. Facing two other criminal cases in a justice system notorious for politicising cases, he could face years in jail. Even behind bars, he has been able to make his voice heard through the “Putin’s Palace” video. He also released a message on the eve of the protests, stating that his life could be in danger. Washington, Europe and Britain have criticised Putin over Navalny’s arrest, calling for his release. In Russia, celebrities, sports stars, rappers, writers, journalists and social media influencers — many who have huge youth followings but rarely comment on politics, posted comments on social media calling for him to be freed, or calling on Russians to protest in his support. TW