The Future of Political Protest in Russia After Alexei Navalny’s Arrest

Since the turn of the 21st century, Russia has been seen as the primary rival of many democratic countries worldwide. Despite China’s rapid rise in recent years, much attention remains focused on authoritarianism and democratic backsliding in Russia and other ex-Soviet countries. Ironically, however, it is at the moment when Western countries pay the least attention to foreign affairs that these countries see the most opportunity for change. As protests consume countries like Belarus and Russia, we take a look at whether such efforts stand a chance of reforming the government. We’ll first analyze the demonstrations in Belarus and then examine Russia’s recent protests. Finally, for the last issue, we’ll discuss how these protests might impact their country leader’s grip on power and what it might mean for the world at large.

where they were met with heavy police resistance

Protests have dominated news headlines this past year. From Thailand to Chile and India to the United States, governments worldwide have been shaken by internal dissent. Yet, while much has changed, progress in some areas remains frustratingly slow or altogether absent. Although Russia has further tarnished its international reputation through the attempted assassination and subsequent imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, it has achieved its most crucial goal—silencing dissidents while avoiding the Russian populace’s ire. 

When Alexei Navalny touched down in Moscow on January 17 following a failed assassination attempt by Russia’s Federal Security Service, he was promptly detained. Russian officials explained that Navalny had violated the terms of a suspended jail sentence from 2014 by leaving the country for emergency medical treatment. In response to the news, nations such as Germany and Britain quickly called for Navalny’s immediate release and threatened to impose sanctions if Russia did not comply. Throughout Russia, protests erupted in a rare expression of public anger, primarily fueled by a documentary on the extreme extent of the Kremlin’s corruption that Navalny’s team released days after his arrest. For a time, it looked as if combined opposition from the Russian public and the international community would be enough to force a concession from Putin’s regime.

Yet, two months down the line, such hopes have proven futile. The internal atmosphere in Russia remains essentially as it was before Navalny’s imprisonment. While tens of thousands of citizens in Moscow took to the streets upon hearing about his detainment, the government responded by arresting more than ten thousand protesters and handing Navalny a three-and-a-half-year sentence at a corrective labor colony. A Moscow court later agreed to subtract from this sentence the time Navalny spent under house arrest. Still, the fact remains that Russia’s most prominent political critic will be silenced and rendered powerless for the next two and a half years. 

The protests have also failed to garner public sympathy—a recent survey found that those who trusted Navalny over any other politician increased from a meager 1% to 5% upon news of his arrest before quickly returning to its original level by February. More than half of all Russians remain convinced that the FSS did not deliberately poison the opposition candidate. Though an admirable act of courage, Navalny’s return to Russia has jeopardized his personal safety and the future of organized political dissent in the country.

External pressure on Russia has similarly proven ineffective. Short of declaring war or imposing economic sanctions, few foreign policy measures countries can adopt to chastise each other. So, given that war remains an irrational prospect, America and the EU declared a further round of sanctions on several Russian individuals and state institutes on March 2. But Russia is no stranger to such sanctions. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has repeatedly faced verbal rebukes and economic blows from world leaders. 

Despite such sanctions, slow economic growth, and stagnant markets, Russia’s fiscally conservative economic policy has allowed the country to remain resilient. By isolating Russia from the global oil market, foreign countries inadvertently prompted the Russian government to end cyclical patterns of wild spending induced by a rise in oil prices. With a foreign currency reserve at a near-record high of $542 billion and a total public debt of 15% of its GDP, the Russian economy is unlikely to be wholly destabilized by the newest wave of sanctions. Indeed, further economic pressure may even push Russia to seek closer ties with China to offset any lost capital flow. 

As I have repeated throughout this three-part series, not all is lost. The prospect of regime change is always a volatile matter, and Putin’s political position exhibits signs of weakness. Russian youths, more acquainted with the digital world than their predecessors and therefore more likely to find ways to circumvent state censorship, made up much of Navalny’s supporters. As time goes on and the older generation’s voices begin to lose prominence, public opinion may turn the other way. Meanwhile, Russia’s heavy-handed approach to quelling domestic dissent has received criticism from those within the government. On condition of anonymity, a senior Kremlin official admitted that the government had “made some mistakes” in handling the recent protests. In time, Putin’s ironclad grip on Russian politics will inevitably falter. For the time being, however, it looks as if the regime has weathered its latest challenge.