Staunton, January 24 – The protests across Russia this weekend were “undoubtedly against the Kremlin and corruption but they were not necessarily liberal, pro-Western or democratic,” Aleksandr Baunov says. As a result, they have frightened both those in power and many better off Russians who do not consider themselves supporters of the regime.
The Moscow Carnegie Center analyst says that the composition of the demonstrators this time around was much broader than in the liberal protests of the past. Many people came out less because of Navalny’s mistreatment than because this was an occasion to express their unhappiness about the situation in their own lives (carnegie.ru/commentary/83710).
This is, Baunov suggests, they did so to protest “illegality and the usurpation of power,” issues that go back most recently to the rewriting of the Constitution so that Putin can remain in office for life. And those taking part were angry. “Now there were almost no happy and funny slogans and posters” like those earlier. Those who went into the streets were “serious, even dark in their views.”
There were no customary calls for legal, democratic and constitutional arrangements. Instead, there was anger at what Putin and his regime have done. According to the Carnegie analyst, “this is logical” because people in the streets were not protesting an election but the attempted murder and incarceration of Navalny.
Saturday’s protests were “much less peaceful than all preceding ones,” Baunov says. “If you please, this is the first Russian protest which at least inn Moscow immediately began with clashes” in large part because those taking part were members of “the youthful, urban, post-industrial proletariat” of disappointed young people who see no future for themselves.
The fears of the powers that be were intensified by the fact that Western governments spoke out in favor of the protesters. The West always does this; but after Navalny’s misadventures, the opposition figure has become for many in Western capitals “the second voice of Russia after Putin,” something the Kremlin leader cannot allow.
The new US Administration even declared that “in this situation, it stands shoulder to shoulder with its allies and partners against the violation of civil rights” in Russia and called Navalny not Putin its “partner in Russia.” From the Kremlin’s perspective, this looks like an attempt at regime change and a response to Russian interference in US elections.
Because the Kremlin views things this way, it will dig in and use the forces at its disposal to suppress the protesters. But the organizers of these demonstrations will also “try to convert their protest into a regular one,” declaring that they will continue to protest until their goals of the release of Navalny are met.
In response, the Putin regime is likely to try to show a more human face in dealing with the protests even as it uses coercion to disperse them. But this will only mean that “the protest as we know from Minsk and Khabarovsk can be kept up for long months in the expectation of some events which will give an advantage to one of the sides.”
“For the time being,” Baunov concludes, “time is still on the side of the powers that be, but this time is not infinite.” And so Russia is entering a new period in which the two sides will increasingly be testing each other with an eye to how others beyond the borders of the Russian Federation will react.