Russia is back in global headlines after the arrest of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny sparked the largest protests in years across the country last week.
Angered by a bombshell investigation into what Navalny’s team claims is the construction of a palatial estate belonging to President Vladimir Putin, tens of thousands turned out in scores of cities to decry endemic corruption and selective justice. Police detained nearly 4,000 protesters, some brutally, while Navalny’s allies have promised more protests to come.
The fresh turmoil begs the perennial question: Could Putin’s regime be seriously rattled this time?
Reports from the ground suggest the demonstrations were “something special,” reflecting a geographic scope and level of discontent not seen during earlier protests. But ICWA Executive Director Gregory Feifer (and fellow in Russia in 2000-2002) says the Putin regime has shown remarkable resilience during such challenging moments.
“He has built his power methodically,” said Feifer, who served as NPR’s Moscow correspondent between 2005 and 2008 during his decade living in Russia. “He’s done it by trial and error.”
Most agree the boldness of Navalny’s confrontation with Putin—his return to Russia from Germany after recuperating from a nearly fatal nerve agent poisoning—has surpassed that of other opposition figures in Russia, together with his political acumen and organizational power. But time and again—whether during the massive 2011-2012 Moscow rallies, or scattered socioeconomic protests around the country more recently—the Putin system has persisted.
A quick look at recent history might help explain why.
The almost-sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, although presaged by economic crisis and social discontent, was facilitated by elites who no longer bought into the Communist system. But Putin has built a social and political structure bound by corruption at every level, Feifer says, ensuring that precious few—from ordinary Russians to high-level members of his security clan—see incentives to shaking up the status quo.
“This widespread corruption enables Putin to rule the country top-down in his infamous power vertical,” he said, “and I think that’s something that we in the West really overlook.”
That’s not to say the system is unbreakable, Feifer adds. The catastrophic lack of public investment and economic diversification, as well as increasing isolation on the world stage, means it is almost certainly unsustainable. But there’s no sign reform or collapse is imminent.
It’s not just about kleptocracy. It’s also important to understand how various societal elites have played their own part in either tolerating or enabling Putin from the beginning of his rule two decades ago. He has further developed his base by stoking a culture war pitting a nationalist-minded majority against an increasingly marginalized and insular liberal class.
Feifer observed the earliest stages of that complicity during his fellowship, which coincided with Putin’s rise to power. At the time, many prominent cultural and political figures rallied around him and his promise to lift Russia from what he characterized as the ruin of the 1990s, a refrain he regularly raises today.
“I do think that Navalny is absolutely right to point to corruption as his number one issue,” Feifer said. “But so far, there’s still a critical mass of people who go along with it.”
Photo: Protests for Alexei Navalny’s release, January 23, 2021, Lipetsk, Russia (Rave, Wikimedia Commons)