The arrest of Aleksei Navalny in Moscow on January 17, 2021, triggered a wave of protest movements across Russia. He was returning from Berlin after spending several months in treatment, after allegedly being poisoned by agents of the Russian government.
This protest movement, unlike that of 2012, is deeper and much more dangerous to the stability of the “Putin System”: it surpasses the major urban centres of Moscow and St. Petersburg, mobilizing populations from Vladivostok to Krasnodar. Over 40,000 people gathered in central Moscow chanting anti-corruption slogans and demanding the release of Navalny.
Navalny emerged to incarnate dissent against the Putin system, by focusing his campaign on elite corruption and inefficiency. Yet, one should not take him for a liberal democrat, which was the impression given by Western media reports. If he was indeed a “liberal democrat”, it is of a Russian variant of liberal democrats. Before focusing on corruption, Navalny was closely associated with Russian nationalist circles, involved in anti-immigrant campaigns, as well as stood against Russians of non-Slavic ethnic background, especially towards North Caucasians.
Now, the Russian government is in a difficult situation: releasing Navalny would encourage more dissent, while keeping him in jail after the initial 30 days would cause more anger. Repressive politics have their limits, especially in times when authoritarian regimes fail to deliver their part of the deal, i.e. economic stability.
The universality of the movement has several causes: one is that Navalny succeeded in hammering his anti-corruption message, especially through spreading video reports on social media. The Russian authorities dominate over media institutions, but censorship has its limits in the age of digital technologies. His team released a video documentary about Putin’s Black Sea palace, which cost 1billion Euros. Navalny accused the Russian leader of having constructed the luxurious palace out of corrupt money, qualifying it to be labelled “the largest bribe in history”.
The Russian leader reacted to the release of the video by describing it as “compilation and montage”, even adding that he found it “boring”.“Nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did,” Putin was quoted as saying by news agencies. Yet, in less than a week 86 million visitors had watched the video.
The Russian leader’s problem is not limited to the inefficiency of censorship: it is the message of this Putin system that is no longer a convincing one for a substantial group of Russian citizens. Putin came to power in a different period of time, and provided solutions not only to the embattled Russian dominant classes, but also satisfied the needs of larger segments of the population. After the years of Soviet disintegration under Mikhail Gorbachev, and the chaotic years of Boris Yeltsin, during which the Russian and other formerly Soviet populations suffered enormously, Putin promised stability but also projected an image of Russian power, standing up to an “arrogant” West. Most importantly, Putin succeeded to bring stability to Russia thanks to increasing financial income based on massive Russian energy and raw material exports, and by becoming for many years the number one oil producer in the world (third top oil producer in 2019, after the US and Saudi Arabia). Paradoxically, here lies both the strength and the weakness of the Putin system.
The Soviet economy was once the second biggest economy and military power in the world. Yet, it was lagging behind the West in technological development because of inefficiency in its militaro-industrial complex and because of a political system based on strict hierarchical control and censorship. Gorbachev’s reforms were essentially an attempt to modernize this system, but instead they destabilized it.
Russian economy today is the 11th largest per Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The Russian economy was hit hard by Western plus Japanese financial sanctions following the forced annexation of Crimea in 2014, and it has also suffered, during Putin’s rule, from structural problems. It is totally dependent on oil and gas (52%) and metals and precious stones (8%) while machines and electronics are only (3.4%). The fact that the Russian ruling elites make their profit through raw material exports does not stimulate its technological sector, nor preserve and develop its industrial capabilities.
This structural dependence of the Russian economy on export of energy and minerals is in crisis, and is extremely dependent on global economic fluctuation. Russia exported the equivalent of 422 billion USD in 2019, and its exports are expected to decrease to 319 billion USD in 2020.
Now, after being in power for over two decades the “Putin system” is showing signs of fatigue. Paradoxically, Vladimir Putin is more vulnerable now than ever to street pressure, after seeking total control over Russian political institutions. The message of “power” and “stability” is not convincing anymore to a new generation that wants change, and sees stability as “more of the same”. Antagonism with the West and projection of military power made sense after the Yeltsin years and in the context of Chechen wars, but does not have the same attraction to a new generation.
Most importantly, Putin failed to solve the fundamental problems of Russia – economic modernization – by preferring stability over reforms. Today, one sees the limits of the choices taken in the past, and that stability cannot be maintained forever.
The global COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated economic difficulties and will probably cause increase in social dissent. The Russian authorities will need more than repressive policies to contain popular dissatisfaction.