Russia was rocked by demonstrations over the weekend, as thousands braved freezing temperatures to protest the detention of dissident Alexei Navalny. The opposition leader had just returned to Russia after recovering from a poisoning attack, suspected to undertaken by the Kremlin. But Russians’ grievances go well beyond the treatment of Navalny. Corruption, a foundering economy, and dissatisfaction with the ruling elite threaten to propel the protests into a broader movement against President Vladimir Putin’s regime. The Kremlin has alleged that the protests are a Western plot to destabilize Russia. USIP’s Donald Jensen looks at the underlying factors driving the protests, what threat they pose to Putin’s regime, and what, if any, role the United States can play.

Demonstrators standoff with riot police officers during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Demonstrators standoff with riot police officers during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

Navalny’s arrest has sparked this latest round of protests—but what underlying factors are driving public discontent in Russia?

The discontent is driven by several factors: anger over pervasive official corruption; stagnant or declining living standards; a lack of trust in public institutions; backlash against the authorities’ heavy hand; and changes in society. It is important to remember that Russia is a complex, often contradictory place, where power is highly personalized, so even though Putin’s poll ratings are relatively high, public support for most other institutions is much lower. To a certain extent the stability of the system thus depends on the Kremlin ensuring that Putin’s popularity, a key source of legitimacy, remains strong.

The core problem the Kremlin faces is that the social contract between elite and the masses is no longer viable. In the first 10 years or so of Putin’s rule there was an understanding that the people would be guaranteed prosperity in exchange for giving up the right of political participation. As the economy slowed the Kremlin has had difficulty fulfilling its end of the bargain, so it has tried to reformat the regime: it invaded Ukraine and claimed the West was trying to weaken Russia, among other things. That narrative worked for a while before society turned inward. Although most people are pleased that Putin has made Russia a “great power” again, they want more.

The Kremlin responded with a referendum last year which gave Putin the fig leaf to rule as long as he wanted. It also turned to greater repression. Since the Kremlin poisoned Navalny, moreover, he seems to have evolved in the popular mind from a somewhat controversial “rogue” politician—as commentator Yulia Latynina’s described him—into a genuine opposition leader.

Is there any indication that this moment could pose a unique challenge to the regime’s power?

Not yet. Last weekend’s demonstrations were more violent and more geographically widespread than in recent years. In assessing the threat they pose to the regime, however, I would add four caveats.

First, the regime by all signs retains control of the instruments of repression. During Putin’s reign, he has steadily strengthened the security organs, including creating a new “national guard” that answers directly to the president and is aimed primarily at crushing domestic opposition.

Second, the opposition does not have a unified program. They do not all support democracy for Russia or better ties with the West. Nor do they all support Navalny. Putting together an organized, effective opposition movement also is an immense challenge in a country as diverse as the Russian Federation, a society which is highly atomized and without established institutions or procedures for legitimate dissent.

Third, as large as the numbers taking to the streets last weekend were, it must be kept in mind that they do not represent a majority of the population (at least outside Moscow). Putin also has a core of strong support—an influential minority. The fight, as is always the case, is over the hearts and minds of the large number of voters in the middle. This is what makes the parliament elections later this year so important. Intent on containing this discontent, the regime is unlikely to take the chance that opposition forces will win in their constituencies. The elections are thus likely to be neither free nor fair.

Finally, a key element at the moment preventing the opposition from mounting a serious challenge to the regime’s grip power is that so far there has been no serious split in the elite. The people at the top clearly sometimes disagree over money flows, access to Putin, relations with Washington, or how to deal with Ukraine, for example. But Putin has been very effective as a balancer and manipulator of various forces and has intimidated the people around him who might be tempted to stray. (The fate of past regime critics such as Boris Nemtsov serves as a tragic lesson.) I do not know but assume that they all remember what happened during the insurgent Yeltsin movement of 1989-91, which broke up the Soviet Union. So far at least, todays’ Russian leaders do not want to repeat that experience. Moreover, most of the leadership has a collective political and financial interest in maintaining the sistema, the status quo.

Aside from street protests, the government and protesters have clashed online, with the government trying to pressure social platforms to delete protest-related content. To what degree has the regime managed to stifle online organizing, and what impact has that had on the protests at large?

As dissatisfaction with the regime has risen in recent years, the Kremlin has tightened the controls on the internet, often under the pretext of banning extremist or terrorist content. Some officials have even talked about creating a social media network that is hermitically sealed from the outside world.  Restricting internet content is technically very difficult, but I nevertheless expect a new tightening of restrictions after what happened last weekend. Social media networks, especially TikTok, played an important role in turning people out into the streets. Ironically, there probably are opponents of stricter internet controls in the top leadership as well, since social media is one of the few channels available for relatively open debate. Social media is also an important way for the regime to monitor public opinion in an environment where information is incomplete, distorted, or invented.

Putin’s government has attempted to blame the West, specifically the United States, for “interference.” What role do opinions of the West play in the protests? Can the United States help the protesters?

The United States and the West played no part at all in the protests. This is a matter between the Russian people and a regime that many believe is no longer serving their interests. I do think many protesters are heartened by Western expressions of moral support for peaceful, democratic change, and human rights.

Despite good intentions in the 1990s, the United States learned to its dismay that it is next to impossible to fine tune Russian domestic developments. Nevertheless, the United States today has potentially powerful instruments of soft power available to engage the Russian people more effectively as they make choices about their future. U.S. diplomats at the embassy in Moscow and at the consulates in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok work hard at public outreach. Their efforts should be supported and upgraded them to make them more effective, as Washington pushes back firmly against Russian bad behavior.

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