- Mass protests in Russia on June 12 focused more on deep systemic grievances than movements of the past, thus constricting the Kremlin's ability to offer concessions without destabilizing its own system.
- Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is positioning himself as champion for a number of disgruntled groups, giving his movement the potential to evolve into a serious threat to the Kremlin.
- Despite being cheered on by the West, Navalny is not aligned with most Western interests and will not utilize Western support.
The tens of thousands of demonstrators who hit the streets in 150 cities across Russia, including in Moscow and St. Petersburg, were part of the largest set of protests seen during President Vladimir Putin's reign, certainly in terms of scope and also perhaps in size. And it was not only the breadth of the protests that grabbed the Kremlin's attention, but also the nature of the grievances being aired. The dissenters focused on some of the most entrenched, systemic concerns Russia faces today — government corruption, a stagnant political system and a weak economy. And unlike the mass protests of 2010, 2011 and 2012, the June 12 gatherings were not sparked by a specific trigger — an election, for instance — that the Kremlin could easily address. The protesters of 2017 are rising up against long-standing issues that strike at the very core of the Kremlin's system, making this a movement that could eventually shake the foundations of the leadership.
At the heart of the crusade is Alexei Navalny, an opposition heavyweight who used regional offices across the country and a powerful social media campaign to bring people to the streets. Navalny is continuing a mission he began pursuing years ago. He has been on the political scene for as long as Putin has been president, though in the past he kept a lower profile. This time, however, Navalny is taking on a leadership role, with a message that could unify disparate Russian opposition groups and — for the first time under the current administration — perhaps form a movement strong enough to challenge the Kremlin to reform.
A Movement is Sparked
The closest that Russia's opposition groups have come to coalescing into a single force against Putin's administration came at the start of the decade. In 2010, there was an increase in the number of serious demonstrations by Russian nationalists, who called themselves Russia for Russians, and were joined by the Kremlin's nationalist youth group, Nashi. By the end of that year, a poll conducted by the Russian research group Levada-Center revealed that 60 percent of Russians agreed with the movement's anti-minority, anti-Muslim sentiments. The protests continued into 2011, with demonstrators calling for the Kremlin to cut its massive subsidies to the Muslim regions of Russia and curb the flow of immigrants coming into the country for work. Originally formed in the late 19th century, Russia for Russians has repeatedly reemerged during times of stark nationalism, acting as an umbrella for nationalist groups such as the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, skinheads and even Navalny's own group, at the time called The People.
As both legislative and presidential elections loomed in 2011 and 2012, Navalny announced an expanded focus for his faction to include political corruption and electoral reforms. This announcement put his group at odds with the Kremlin and ultimately forced a breakup with pro-Kremlin nationalist groups, opening the door for Navalny to coordinate with other groups both old and new.
Mass protests in 2011 and 2012 partially evolved from the Russia for Russians movement but then took on a new life with a string of groups all standing against the Kremlin's blatant manipulation of the political system through the two elections. The protests of that period brought out professional activists and intellectuals, established opposition leaders who had been working against Putin for over a decade, dissenters from Putin's camp such as former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, and even members of the Communist Party. And some of the most visible and vocal demonstrators were Navalny's followers: youths, liberals, members of the emerging middle class and ultranationalists.
But despite the broad coalition of dissent, the protests dissolved in 2012 after Putin was re-elected for his third term and the Kremlin began implementing a multitiered strategy to respond to dissent. In addition to arresting most of the opposition leaders, Putin's administration offered selective chairs in the state Duma to Communist Party representatives and launched a series of concessions to placate the protesters. These included allowing direct voting for regional governors, restructuring the mandates for certain constituencies in the Duma and simplifying the registration of parties; almost all of these moves were subsequently reversed.
In the years since the dissolution of the 2012 protests, Navalny, once a marginal opposition leader, took on the task of trying to define a movement. He may not have fully succeeded five years ago, but his efforts laid the groundwork for his successes in 2017 and put him in the position of making an even bigger mark in the future.
A Leader Rises
A lawyer by trade, Navalny bounced between firms in the late 1990s. But in 2000, when Putin officially took the presidency, Navalny threw himself into politics. First he jumped into the fairly liberal Yabloko party, rising through the political ranks. But throughout the 2000s, Navalny regularly struck out on his own to form several democratic movements, often focused on youths. His blog posts and knack for social media, especially in a time when many other politicians were either struggling to harness the medium or ignoring it outright, made his voice one of the strongest among young people in Russia.
Navalny officially left Yabloko in 2007 and founded The People, which stood for so-called democratic nationalism and espoused anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and pro-ethnic Russian rhetoric. Despite collaborating with other nationalist groups like Great Russia and Movement Against Illegal Immigration, Navalny's group struggled to get off the ground. But it established a solid foundation, and his movement began to grow during the Russia for Russians marches of 2010 before being further propelled by the mass protests of 2011. During that period, Navalny's messages reached a broad cross-section of demographics.
The political cycle of 2010-2012 gave Navalny the platform and momentum he needed to become the primary face of the opposition. He has held onto that role by maintaining focus on a universally appealing message: anti-corruption. The topic covers a wide range of issues including election-rigging, elite money funneling/hoarding, a stagnant political system and economic pressure on the people of Russia. It's a message that crosses political, economic and social divides. And though Navalny created the Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2011, he has been fighting corruption since long before he gained his more recent soapbox.
Over the years, Navalny and his various organizations have gone up against some of the Kremlin's biggest firms and personalities to reveal the systemic corruption across the country. In 2008, Navalny attempted to launch a transparency campaign into the largest Kremlin-owned energy firms: Rosneft, Gazprom, GazpromNeft and Surgutneftgaz. He spent hundreds of thousands of rubles to purchase minority shares in the firms, then fought to gain disclosure of information for those minority shareholders. He then published in bulk information on the energy firms' network of corrupt connections among one another, Kremlin heavyweights, and foreign and domestic intermediaries. Furthermore, in 2011, Navalny published reports on corrupt Hungarian-Russian government real estate deals, and in 2012 he exposed influential Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov's dubious ties to powerful oligarchs.
Such actions gave Navalny a strong reputation as the leader in the fight against government corruption, which fed into his ability to surpass some of the more long-standing opposition leaders during the 2010-2012 political cycle. During that period, Navalny coined one of the opposition's most identifiable slogans, "party of crooks and thieves," referring to the Kremlin's United Russia. And after many of the opposition organizers from that cycle stepped back under Kremlin pressure, Navalny continued to charge forward. In 2012, he attempted to create his own political party, People's Alliance, which was regularly challenged by election committees and judicial systems. After even its name was challenged, People's Alliance morphed into its current iteration, Party for Progress, which has also been continually denied legal party registration despite meeting requirements.
Navalny's rise has made him a top target for arrests. The most serious charges came in 2013, the day after he registered his candidacy in the race for the influential position of Moscow mayor. Navalny was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison. He initially withdrew his candidacy, leaving Russia's largest opposition groups in disarray. At the time, 57 percent of Muscovites and 44 percent of Russians believed the charges against Navalny were fabricated. With the Kremlin facing the potential for new protests to erupt, Navalny's sentence was suspended, allowing him to re-confirm his candidacy. Even Vyacheslav Volodin, then the deputy prime minister (and the Kremlin's political orchestrator) supported Navalny's bid against the Kremlin-chosen candidate, Sergei Sobyanin, seeing it as an opportunity to legitimize Sobyanin's victory. Ultimately, Navalny garnered nearly a third of the vote in the election, a strong result that shocked not only most analysts but also the Kremlin.
In recent years, Navalny and the Kremlin have traded jabs with a series of political power moves. Navalny has continued to spread his message through blogs, a YouTube channel, Twitter and the Russian social media network VKontakte. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has continued to arrest him, bringing another serious embezzlement charge against him in 2014. He was convicted once again, but only put under house arrest. While serving his sentence, Navalny publicly streamed cutting off his electronic ankle monitor and leaving his house. In 2017, Navalny and his party began opening up political and electoral offices ahead of the gubernatorial and presidential election cycle, which starts in September. And in February 2017, a Russian court re-tried Navalny for his 2013 charges and found him guilty, thus legally barring him from running for president and giving the Kremlin an excuse to throw him in prison whenever needed. A few weeks later, Navalny's group released a 50-minute video laying out egregious corruption accusations against Prime Minister Dmirti Medvedev. Those accusations have fed into growing discontent over the state of Putin's Russia, and they became a centerpiece to the June 12 protests.
The Government Looks Ahead
What makes the current opposition crusade so strong is that, unlike in previous protests, its members' grievances are too complex to allow the Kremlin to easily respond. The movement is seeking reform for the regime's entire system — social, economic and political. Such deep changes would threaten the administraion's stability on multiple levels. The set of grievances growing among the Russian people has also given further momentum to Navalny and his youth-friendly movement. The majority of the demonstrators at the June 12 protests, which were mostly organized via social media, were young, representing a new and politically active generation who have only really known Russia under Putin.
The next move for Navalny's movement is to increase cooperation with other dissenting groups. A string of protests has been taking place across Russia recently, including those by truckers objecting to increased taxes, Muscovites railing against housing demolition and tradespeople unhappy with salary cuts. Some of the Muscovite protesters joined the June 12 demonstrations. Rival opposition leader (and sometimes critic) Mikhail Khodorkovsky has thrown his weight behind Navalny, raising money for those arrested during the protests. The more allegiances Navalny's movement has, the stronger it will become. And if it can harness support from a systemic party with a presence in the Duma, such as the Communist Party, the collaboration could pose a genuine challenge to the Kremlin. Like Navalny's group, the Communist Party has been revitalized by a more youthful, savvier generation, and young Communist leader Andrei Klychkov has already provided his rhetorical support for Navalny's crusade.
The growth of Navalny's broad-reaching opposition movement does not mean the Kremlin has no options, however. During the June 12 protests, Russian security services arrested about 1,000 demonstrators in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. In addition to the security crackdown, the Kremlin has been implementing tougher internet restrictions, which could hamper social media coordination and pinpoint protest organizers. And despite his growing popularity, Navalny still is not strong enough or well-known enough to defeat Putin in a theoretical head-to-head matchup in 2018. But the wide-reaching discontent at the center of Navalny's movement is a sign of things to come, and the Kremlin knows it. As its system continues to atrophy, Putin's administration has not yet figured out how to address the challenges it will one day face.
The West Sees a Beacon
The Western media watched Russia's most recent mass protests with glee. As Moscow continues to act aggressively abroad, the West will support any potential reformist challengers to Putin's power at home. Western nations — especially the United States — were a visible force in the 2011-2012 protests, which saw Western officials meeting opposition leaders, providing financial assistance and attending rallies. The current movement has so far not attracted a similar amount of tangible Western support, though the media has certainly held up Navalny as a pillar of democratic values. Even as early as 2012, the Wall Street Journal described him as "the man Vladimir Putin fears most."
But Navalny is far from a pro-Western champion. Not only is the leader highly anti-Muslim and anti-migrant, he is also just as nationalistic about Russia as Putin. Moreover, Navalny aligns with Putin in the area of foreign policy, with both men wanting Russia to be the center of the region. Unlike those in other Russian opposition groups, Navalny has given no indication that he's willing to work with the West or accept Western support in any way. The West and Navalny are not completely out of step with one another, particularly in wanting reform in Putin's regime. But with Navalny as the head of the leading opposition movement, shifts in the Kremlin are set to be spurred by those from within Russia and not outside it.
Valid or not, the Kremlin still deeply fears an uprising backed by the West, similar to what happened in neighboring Ukraine in 2014. Due to that external pressure and its own internal divisions, Russia's current government has been evolving to become more autocratic, and the Kremlin has the tools to continue cracking down on anti-system movements. However, such heavy-handedness will feed into greater dissent in the longer run, and Navalny's movement will continue to grow.