After more than 20 years, many Russians, especially the younger generation, are weary of Putin and rampant corruption, frustrated by the erosion of their liberties, and by tangible failures such as rising food and utility prices.
“The Russian authorities are effectively yelling: we are afraid of your activities; we are afraid of your protests; we are afraid of your strategic voting”, tweeted Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, following last week’s decision by a court in Moscow. The court had granted the Prosecutor’s Office request to suspend activities by Navalny’s headquarters and 34 regional offices across Russia, as well as their YouTube, Instagram and other social media sites, until it rules on 17 May whether they should be categorised as an “extremist terrorist” group, such as Al Qaeda. As Russian courts always follow instructions from the Kremlin, it will almost certainly grant the request, which will result in Navalny’s supporters, who are effectively the largest political opposition group in the country, facing criminal prosecution for any legitimate political activism or human rights work and having their assets confiscated.
In Russia, membership of “extremist” organisations is punishable by up to 12 years’ imprisonment and even financing such organisations may lead to 10 years in jail. This will worry tens of thousands of past donors who may be at risk of prosecution for making financial contributions prior to the Navalny group being designated “extremist”, as it’s common in Russia for criminal sanctions to be applied retrospectively!
So, Zhdanov could well be right. This draconian and vindictive action does suggest that Vladimir Putin is afraid of Alexei Navalny and wants to exterminate his organisation. But why?
The curious thing is that a Levada poll published in February established that the level of disapproval of Navalny had actually increased over the six months from 50% to 56%, following his return. Another poll revealed that while 78% of Russians are aware of the poisoning of Navalny, half believe that either there was no poisoning and that all of it was staged, or that the poisoning was a provocation of the Western special services. The poll also illustrated that the way people viewed the event depended on their age, the way they obtained the information and their attitude towards the government. Those from the older age groups who get their information predominately from TV come into the “sceptical” group, whilst the younger interviewees who are active internet users tended to blame the government. With virtually all of Russia’s media under the control of the Kremlin, President Putin appears to be winning the propaganda battle. So why the obsession of eliminating any opposition to his reign?
It’s now six years since the murder of another opposition leader who fought for a vision of a free and democratic Russia, Boris Nemtsov, a sobering reminder of the Putin regime’s willingness to shamelessly eradicate opponents. When President Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin “a killer” last month, portrayed in some quarters as “provocative”, many Kremlin watchers simply viewed the “k” word as accurate.
After more than 20 years, many Russians, especially the younger generation, are weary of Putin and rampant corruption, frustrated by the erosion of their liberties, and by tangible failures such as rising food and utility prices. Real disposable incomes have fallen six years in a row, tumbling 3.5% in 2020, leaving the average Russian’s income 10% lower than in 2013. A recent survey showed that after a six-week lockdown at the start of the pandemic, nearly half of households had no savings or only enough to cover a month of expenses. On the macro-scale, petrodollars stopped generating growth long ago. In the first decade of the 21st century, amid an oil boom, Russia grew by 6.6% a year. Between 2012 and 2019, GDP growth averaged just 1%, leaving Russia trailing other countries at a similar level of development. Compare this with the 2% the Soviet Union saw from 1977 to 1985, a period known as stagflation, and you can see the dismal failure of Putinomics.
Could reforms help? Almost certainly, but there’s a problem. Vladimir Putin was horrified when, as a KGB officer in Dresden, he witnessed the attempts by Mikhail Gorbachev to resuscitate the moribund Soviet economy by launching reforms which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event Putin described in 2014 as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”. He is determined not to repeat that. Boosting growth would require embarking on reforms that would challenge his grip on politics in Russia. Yet without structural changes, it’s likely that GDP growth in Russia will stagnate at less than 2%, something that would seriously increase the chances of popular protests.
And it is anti-government protests that Putin hates most of all. This became clear in 2011, when following his decision to run again for President, Putin’s party, United Russia, only managed to keep its majority by massive electoral fraud, sparking the most intense public protests since the end of the Soviet Union. More than 100,000 protestors, braving temperatures of -18 degrees centigrade, marched through Moscow shouting “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a thief”. Earlier, Putin had likened their white ribbons, worn as a symbol of solidarity, as “condoms”.
More than any other, this event cemented Putin’s decision to prevent any future protests. It also confirmed in his mind that he must change the way he is sure to win elections, from vote rigging to controlling those who could be candidates in elections. As the electoral commission is guaranteed to do his bidding, only allowing the Kremlin’s hand-picked candidates to stand, he could now even take the risk of having the mirage of “free elections”. As a result, by repressing all genuine opposition and allowing only pro-Kremlin hardliners to run, elections in Russia have started to resemble what they looked like in the Soviet Union.
In this, of course, Putin is not alone. Across the world, whether in Myanmar, Belarus or Hong Kong, citizens have been taking to the streets in peaceful, pro-democracy protests. At the same time, there has been the rise and emboldening of the autocratic strongman. Unencumbered by any considerations of the sanctity of human life, rights or dignity, dictatorships or mild autocracies masking as democracies have signalled that repression is effective, as they increasingly break the contract with their people. While citizens across the post-communist region and protestors globally have been learning from each other, so too have dictators.
Without question, Putin will have been infuriated and embarrassed by Navalny’s recent “Putin’s Palace” video, which might have prompted his recent callous move against the archenemy he fears. This YouTube video, which so far has been seen by more than 2.2 million viewers, is not so much a stunning exposure of the full extent of the regime’s corruption, but a spectacular illustration of the chasm between the values of the Russian lower and middle classes and those of the regime. But gone are the days of the socially awkward, insecure and fearful “homo sovieticus”. Instead, we are seeing confident, well-travelled Russians who are aware of their rights as citizens, as an electorate, and as taxpayers, who have embraced the values of the Western middle-class and refuse to put up with anything less than the same kind of freedoms and dignity that their European neighbours enjoy.
These are the ones embracing the Navalny leadership and the future of Russia. These are the ones who want a genuine choice at elections, not just those candidates chosen by the old man bunkered in the Kremlin. These are the ones who want a competitive democracy where elections hold a government accountable. These are the ones Putin desperately wants to prevent protesting. These are the ones to whom Putin is sending a warning by his vindictiveness towards Navalny.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.