Moscow, We Have a Problem: Current Protests in Russia a Sign of Trouble for Putin?

Written by: Associate Editor, Rachel Combs

            Tens of thousands of people gathered in cities and towns across Russia over the weekend protesting the current detention of opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. Navalny was arrested January 17th after returning from Germany where he has spent the past 5 months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning which he has blamed on the Kremlin. He was arrested for violating the terms of his probation by failing to register while in Germany. His probation stems from a 2014 money laundering case, which Navalny claims was politically motivated. Navalny has been a long-time critic of Vladimir Putin and has spent the better part of a decade exposing corruption in Russia. He has built up quite a large following in Russia, particularly among young people. This is evident by the current protests.

Tens of thousands of Russians braved the cold and demonstrated this past weekend over the detention of Navalny. In Moscow alone, it is estimated that 40,000 people showed up to demonstrate, despite the government’s warning to stay home. In the past, harsh crackdowns on protesters have deterred future demonstrations. However, these crackdowns have done little to quash the current protests. In fact, based on early reports from the demonstrations, nearly 42 percent of all participants were first time protestors. Clearly, Navalny has struck a chord with individuals outside his usual fringe group of supporters.

Aside from the protests, the Kremlin also seems to be losing the media war. Nearly ten times as many people watched coverage of the protests on TV Rain, a small independent network, as opposed to RT, the government run media platform. Further, after his detention, Navalny’s team released a two-hour video exposing what he alleges is Putin’s luxury compound, built for Putin by Russian billionaires. The video has been viewed over 99 million times.

It seems momentum is building on the side of the opposition, but will it last? This is not the first time the Kremlin has been rocked by opposition protests or instability. The 2011 protests drew nearly 50,000 people to the streets of Moscow, protesting what many believed was a rigged election. The protests led to little change, and in fact, led to more repressive laws and restrictions. Though tangible political change is not likely to result from this recent wave of protests, it will be interesting to see how the Kremlin confronts a new generation of young politically engaged individuals.

Robyn Dixon, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny calls for protests after court orders him to be held for 30 days upon his return, The Washington Post (Jan. 18, 2021) available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russia-navalny-detained-putin/2021/01/18/20cf86a2-5914-11eb-8bcf-3877871c819d_story.html

Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov, Navalny defiant as Russian court rejects his bid for freedom,Associated Press (Jan. 28, 2021) available at https://apnews.com/article/russia-reject-appeal-alexei-navalny-5bf9c8e8a600ba333ba1beb8ffd65360

Anton Zverev and Andrew Osborn, Police crack down on Russian Protests against jailing of Kremlin foe Navalny, Reuters(Jan. 22, 2021) available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-politics-navalny-idUSKBN29R10S

Alexei Navalny: Russia’s vociferous Putin critic, BBC (Jan. 22, 2021) available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-16057045

Alexey Kovalev, Something Special Just Happened in Russia, The New York Times (Jan. 25, 2021) available at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/25/opinion/aleksei-navalny-russia-protests.html

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