The poisoning and now the imprisonment of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is becoming an increasing challenge for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What will he do when more and more Russians take to the streets to demonstrate? In dozens of cities, thousands of Russians are said to be shouting that “Putin is a thief”, that “we want freedom” and that “Navalny must be released”.
– This is a huge challenge for Putin. For the many security forces and the police, it may be natural to use force against the demonstrators, but pictures of police beating demonstrators with batons will trigger even more of the Russian population, says Julie Wilhelmsen, Russia expert at NUPI.
Order, not chaos
Putin came to power in his time – and has retained it – because he has been seen by most Russians as a leader who has given Russia peace, order and an improved economy for most people.
– Most Russians react very strongly to police violence, and associate chaos and violence with the time before Putin. He knows that pictures of police and security forces driving on with batons or direct shooting into the crowds will make a difficult situation even worse, Wilhelmsen says.
Last weekend, around 4,000 people were arrested in the demonstrations in support of Navalny. Many of these were released shortly after.
– Several are surprised that they have not gone out tougher, given the warning in advance. I interpret this as Putin’s big dilemma, says Wilhelmsen.
– Avoid coercion and blood
The researcher points out that Vladimir Putin has created an increasingly authoritarian Russia. Institutions with coercive power (FSB, the military, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of the Interior and the police) have gained increasing influence in politics.
– Puta has also created more and more forces, such as the new National Guard from 2016, with its 340,000 soldiers, Wilhelmsen says.
For several years, the regime has tightened the ability to oppose by introducing ever-new laws that make it difficult to organize, fund independent organizations, demonstrate and speak out.
– For example, ever higher fines are given for demonstrating, and one can be punished for making “extremist” expressions or encouraging opposition to the authorities via the internet. The authorities deprive people of the opportunity to resist through administrative barriers and laws that are selectively enforced. But he has been relatively careful with the use of obvious coercion and violence, she says.
The regime has also shut down cities, to avoid large crowds.
– Putin has taken the people with him much of the way, at the same time as he is extremely dependent on the many security agencies. What opportunities does Putin now have again when it comes to appealing to the population – and not appear as the leader of a total police state, she says.
Navalny = Putin’s counterpart
Wilhelmsen points out that Putin has for many years managed to avoid that opposition leader Alexei Navalny was a threat.
– This is pure speculation, but Putin miscalculated when it came to Navalny. He was not a very famous figure in Russia, and was never mentioned by name of Putin. But the poisoning attempt has transformed Navalny into a national figure, says Wilhelmsen.
When he returned to Russia after being rescued in Berlin, the name of the blogger and corruption hunter had become better known among most Russians.
– When he came home to Russia, they could not help but arrest him, at the same time as they knew it would only create more trouble. Then Navalny releases the cunning video, which addresses a topic that triggers most Russians: namely the increased differences, injustice and corruption, says the NUPI researcher.
She believes Navalny became nationally known after the demonstrations last weekend, which were triggered by the video released by Navalny’s people.
“Navalny has now become Putin’s counterpart,” said Wilhelmsen.
Putin = oligarch
Putin should get rid of the big oligarchs and create a better economy for most Russians. At the same time, covid-19 also creates major problems for most Russians.
– In the last five years, real wage growth has declined for most Russians, and Navalny manages to show that the differences between rich and poor are increasing. There are many challenges for Putin here, but we have to wait a bit before we can conclude, Wilhelmsen says and continues:
– This is not a Maidan or a regime change, but a major challenge for Putin, who is more and more dependent on those who administer coercion.
But Russia is shaking: “For the first time in decades, the entire Moscow, Kremlin and public offices in the area have been turned into inaccessible forts, with riot police and checkpoints on every corner. I guess this is what fear looks like “, writes Ivan Nechepurenko, journalist in the New York Times.
Thousands are arrested
On Sunday, news agencies and photo agencies send out a series of photos, videos and stories of clashes between protesters, police and security forces. At least a thousand people are said to have been arrested on Sunday morning.
Activists in the southwestern city of Kazan say police are beating the people they arrest with batons, in addition to forcing the protesters to lie on the ground with their heads down in the snow, reports the regime-critical website Meduza (see Twitter message below).
” The desire to live in a free country is stronger than the fear of being arrested,” 25-year-old Andrei told Al Jazeera today.
Russia in prison
“In Vladivostok they shout ‘My Russia is in prison’,” writes BBC Russia correspondent Sarah Rainsford. She further tweets that there may be fewer people out on the streets today, but that does not mean that the demonstrations will decrease:
” The protest mood is clearly growing here,” she continues.
Facts Alexei Navalny
- Russian opposition leader (44) with millions of followers on Twitter and YouTube.
- Trained lawyer. Married and father of two.
- Started an anti-corruption campaign in 2007 by buying into state-controlled companies in order to ask critical questions at general meetings.
- Has organized a number of demonstrations against President Vladimir Putin.
- Wanted to run as a presidential candidate and challenge Putin in the 2018 election, but the candidacy was not approved.
- Became acutely ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow in August last year. Was evacuated to Berlin after strong western pressure.
- Was poisoned by the neurotoxin Novitsjok, poison that is basically only found in the Russian chemical arsenal.
- On January 17, Navalny was arrested when he returned to Russia.
Source: NTB, Store norske leksikon, Wikipedia