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As protests in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny grow, so too does talk of Vladimir Putin’s demise. But as Foreign Editor David Pratt reports, we have been here before
Both the Kremlin and Russian state media are piling on the pressure to stop him and his supporters. He’s a Western stooge conspiring with foreign intelligence agencies to “brainwash” the Russian population, claimed president Vladimir Putin in a video conference with students last week.
Along that same denunciatory theme, Dmitry Kiselyov, presenter of Russian state television’s flagship current affairs programme, News Of The Week, went a step further.
“There are people who are ready, with complete baseness, to pull children into politics like political paedophiles,” claimed Kiselyov, before launching into a lengthy tirade against the man who has become a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities – Alexei Navalny.
It was earlier this month that 44-year-old Navalny was remanded in custody for 30 days after flying back to Russia from Germany for the first time since being poisoned last August with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent.
He was jailed, say the authorities, for breaching parole terms. But Navalny, whose anti-corruption foundation is known for its investigations into alleged graft among Russia’s political elite, has emerged as the most prominent opponent of Putin. That, say supporters and human rights groups, is the real reason behind the various charges against him which they insist are politically motivated and could lead to years in jail.
This weekend, Navalny’s supporters have once again taken to Russia’s streets to demand his release in the face of an intensified crackdown by the Russian authorities after earlier unprecedented protests unnerved the Kremlin.
As part of a key element of state propaganda to discredit the opposition movement, the accusation that Navalny was brainwashing children to maximise the numbers of protesters turning out has been repeated ad nauseam.
Stepped up, too, have been raids by the Russian authorities with news agencies reporting that police raided Navalny’s apartment and offices, as well as those of his allies. Thousands of other Navalny supporters are also said to have been arrested while the authorities claim the raids are part of a criminal investigation into violations of Covid-19 restrictions.
According to news agencies, those closest to the opposition leader that were detained include Navalny’s brother Oleg; his top ally, Lyubov Sobol; Oleg Stepanov, head of Navalny’s Moscow office; Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva from the Navalny-backed Alliance Of Doctors; and Maria Alyokhina from the Pussy Riot punk collective.
Despite this, Navalny appears undaunted. But then his battle of wills with Putin goes back a long way. Even as he sat in his Moscow cell last week, Navalny’s anti-corruption activists were busy highlighting a case that first came to light a decade ago but has now been retold in a video released online and entitled “Putin’s Palace: History of the World’s Largest Bribe”.
Viewed more than 100 million times it is based on drone aerial footage, leaked architectural plans, and eyewitness reports from project insiders – and tells how Putin has allegedly built himself the world’s biggest private residence on an estate 39 times the size of Monaco.
According to Navalny’s video, this opulent palace is said to be built in the Italian palazzo style, has its own underground ice rink, casino, swimming pool, theatre and something called an aquadisco.
The video’s release was a typically searing tactic from a campaigner who has probed deeply into Russia’s corruption and appears fearless in the face of intimidation.
Writing recently in Time Magazine, Michael Weiss, journalist and author, whose forthcoming book is a history of Russian military intelligence, identified what he sees as the principles underpinning Navalny’s campaigning.
“If there’s a theme to Navalny’s oeuvre, it is that Russia’s modern kleptocracy is the offspring of an unholy matrimony between former mid-level KGB officers and a post-Soviet nomenklatura of bandits in business suits. Both species, he insists, are singularly embodied in Vladimir Putin,” observed Weiss.
Last Thursday, during his initial appearance in court, Navalny was shown via video link railing against what he called absurd allegations trumped up by authorities to sideline him for political reasons.
“You won’t succeed in frightening us. We are the majority … I’m happy that more and more people understand that the law is on our side, that we’re in the right,” he told the presiding judge.
“We’ll never allow … these people to seize and steal our country. Yes, brute force is on your side now. You can … put me in handcuffs. (But) that will not continue forever,” Navalny said.
After the ruling to keep him in custody was handed down, Navalny told the judge with trademark sarcasm: “Everything was clear to me before the start of the court hearing, thank you.”
Ever since tens of thousands took to the streets last week some chanting “We will not leave!”, “Putin out!”, “Let him (Navalny) go!”, Russia-watchers and analysts have once again begun to ask whether such protests mark what might be the beginning of the end of Putin’s presidency. Certainly, Navalny and the protests have placed the Russian leader in something of dilemma.
Should, for example, Navalny suffer from some mysterious “accident” and be killed then Putin would only make a martyr of him.
“Putin is a KGB guy. He doesn’t kill publicly if he can kill secretly. If he thinks he can get away with carpet-bombing people in Aleppo or sending his mercenaries to Donbass, he will,” observed Garry Kasparov, former World Chess Champion and another high-profile Russian opposition activist.
“But killing Navalny with no cover-up, that would be challenging even for him,” Kasparov added in an extended interview with Foreign Policy magazine.
Aside from the domestic turmoil such a move would provoke, on an international diplomatic level it’s a near certainty it would result in widespread condemnation and the possibility of greater Western sanctions.
Immediately in the wake of Navalny’s arrest, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the European Union to cease work on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia. The message to Putin was clear. There are those within the international community closely watching how the Kremlin handles Navalny’s case and reacts to the protests.
Then, of course, there is America for Putin to contend with. Given there is now a new man in the White House in the shape of Joe Biden, Putin can no longer rely on the acquiescence of his old admirer, Donald Trump.
Already the US state department under Biden has called for Navalny’s release and the fate of the Russian opposition leader is reported to have been one of the things Biden raised in his very first phone call with his Kremlin counterpart.
In many ways the timing could not be worse for Putin. Even before the coronavirus pandemic which has hit Russia hard, the country’s economy was reeling under the burden of international sanctions.
Every regime has a time limit and for lengthy spells now Putin’s poll ratings have been slipping. The Russian strongman has now been president for as long as, or longer than, many toppled dictators of the 20th century, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines among them. Some observers point also to Putin’s preoccupation with Navalny as perhaps a sign of wavering confidence.
“Even before the botched assassination of Navalny in August 2020, Putin’s popularity had nose-dived because of the Russian economy’s stagnation and his ineffective response to the pandemic,” said Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy recently on the website of the US international affairs think tank, the Atlantic Council.
“Then came the uprising in Belarus and the parallel protests in the Russian Far East, each showing a groundswell of popular opposition to blatant corruption and unaccountable autocratic government,” added Gershman, who believes that Putin is “totally outclassed by Navalny and his team of young investigative reporters and local organisers”.
Others, too, while still wary of what might yet come from the Kremlin, believe that what the world is currently witnessing could prove a pivotal moment in Putin’s demise. Garry Kasparov is among them. “I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t want to be too optimistic because we’ve been disappointed so many times over the last 20 years. But I can see that there’s now an appetite to take some actions,” Kasparov explained in his Foreign Policy magazine interview.
“Maybe we’ve reached the boiling point. Maybe the West is finally sick and tired. Because it’s not just that Putin and his people have been stealing money and hiding it elsewhere. They’ve also been waging a neverending hybrid war against the Free World; from Brexit to the US elections, you could feel Putin’s influence and the activity of those who are trying to undermine Western democracy,” Kasparov added.
Last week, Putin was again playing to a world stage when he made his first address at the World Economic Forum (WEF) as global power brokers held a virtual Davos meeting. Observers noted that his decision to participate was a last-minute one and most tellingly he used it to take a swipe at big technology companies complaining that they were now competing with states.
As Bloomberg media columnist Clara Ferreira Marques pointed out, social media apps like TikTok and YouTube, plus Russian alternatives like VKontakte, played a fundamental role before, during and after last week’s protests.
Putin’s remarks at Davos, observed Ferreira Marques, “said far more about a frustration with an inability to muzzle the online public square, where, unlike with state media, the Kremlin has no monopoly over the conversation, and lacks Navalny’s savvy fluency with which to fight back”.
But despite being put on the backfoot by the scale of the protests, most Russia experts insist Putin is far from in serious retreat. In a letter to the Financial Times last week, Sir Anthony Brenton, a former British Ambassador to Russia, decried what he saw as mistaken analysis on Russia that leads to bad policy. We have seen all this before and still Putin is there, said Brenton, asking the question why before himself responding.
“Difficult though it is for us to understand, the fact remains that 100,000 people on Russia’s streets do not outweigh the 60 per cent of Russia’s population who, even at a time of recession and pandemic, prefer the regime they have to whatever a usually malign history might produce to replace it,” was Brenton’s conclusion.
The former diplomat warned that any moves by the West to increase sanctions would boost the Kremlin’s story that Navalny was a “Western catspaw … and reinforces fortress Russia mentality which has united most of the Russian people, the elite and (crucially) the security services behind their president”.
Brenton is not alone in his thinking, with others also insisting that the world should not expect the end of Putinism any time soon.
“The regime has barely started to unpack its vast tool kit of intimidation,” wrote Alexander Gabuev, a Carnegie Moscow Centre scholar in a thread on social media as this weekend protesters again took to the streets.
“And that’s why it’s wishful thinking to portray a 40k crowd in Moscow (with a population of nearly 13 million) or St Petersburg (with more than five million) as a real danger to the regime,” Gabuev insisted in his post.
But on Friday, in a letter to Navalny’s supporters, activists called on them to rally today near the headquarters of the FSB, the intelligence agency accused of poisoning the opposition leader last August. Not to be outdone, Russian state television, meanwhile, continued its outpouring of pro-Kremlin messages and propaganda.
There is little doubt that the depth of commitment among Navalny’s supporters will now be hard to drown out and the obstacles to Putin’s dominance are unquestionably growing like never before.
It is said that during his time in the KGB, Putin was reportedly called “Pale Moth”. Only the most reckless or naive would bet against him dodging the angry flames surrounding him right now.