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Navalny and the Russians: It's complicated

Roman Goncharenko
January 30, 2021

Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has been trying to mobilize his supporters since his arrest on January 17. But not everyone is answering the call, why not?

Protesters in Omsk, Siberia, holds up a sign supporting Alexei Navalny
A Navalny supporter protesting in the Siberian city of Omsk holds up a sign reading, "One for all and all for one"  Image: Alexey Malgavko/REUTERS

How big will turnout for the next protests be? That is a question many Alexei Navalny supporters are asking themselves these days. On January 23, tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding the jailed opposition leader's immediate release. But those numbers might be difficult to top, as the demonstrations have been declared illegal and participants will face jail time if arrested — nearly 4,000 arrests were made at last week's protests. Then there is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which may also keep people at home.

On the other side, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov is downplaying the protests, telling a reporter on Russian television: "There weren't many protesters. Most stand behind Putin."

Russia: Uprising against Putin

More clicks, more demonstrators?

Since his mid-January return from Germany — where Navalny received medical treatment after being poisoned in Russia — the 44-year-old has electrified large swaths of Russian society. "After Navalny's poisoning, I understood that it made no sense to just sit around anymore," as Adam, a 26-year-old, told DW at protests in Moscow last Saturday. Pavel, a 30-year-old lawyer, said the arbitrariness of the country's legal system made him take to the streets: "I don't really care about Navalny. But I do care about the way he has been treated by the Russian authorities, by police. It's unacceptable."

Alexei Navalny prior to his arrest at Moscow Airport
Alexei Navalny prior to his arrest at Moscow AirportImage: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Navalny was promptly arrested upon arrival at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in mid-January and quickly sentenced to 30 days in jail. He is now waiting for a court decision due to be handed down on February 2. Authorities, however, hope to keep him locked up longer by overturning an earlier suspended sentence dating back to a 2014 embezzlement charge, on the grounds that he violated his parole. 

The opposition figure was already in jail when his FBK anti-corruption foundation released a video documenting a lavish palace on the Black Sea coast that FBK claims Russian oligarchs paid for and had built for President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin boss has personally denied the allegations. The video, released on YouTube, quickly went viral, attracting over 100 million clicks, a record number for the platform in Russia. Navalny hopes the video will help fuel protest. Still, it is unclear whether more clicks will lead more people to take to the streets. The big question now is whether negative press for the Kremlin will translate into more support for the opposition figure.

Alexei Navalny's long game

But how much support does Navalny really have? Anyone hoping to answer that question has to look back about a decade. In the winter of 2011/2012, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin in what many saw as elections that were anything but free and fair. Alexei Navalny, an up-and-coming blogger documenting corruption in Russia, was leading the charge. It was then that his rise to becoming opposition figure number one began.

Navalny has displayed an understanding of the long game and has changed his rhetoric over the years to remain relevant. Initially, many in the opposition found his nationalist tone and rightwing-populist views troubling. Today he no longer speaks in xenophobic terms.

Protesters in Saint Petersburg, Russia
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets on January 23, more protests are expected on January 31Image: Anton Vaganov/REUTERS

Navalny's biggest and only success as a politician came back in 2013, when he ran for mayor of Moscow and finished second, winning almost a third of the vote. But the legal path to political participation has been blocked since then. His party is not registered with election authorities and he himself is barred from holding office due to an embezzlement conviction. That conviction prevented him from running for president in 2018 — Navalny claims the whole was orchestrated by the Kremlin. Still, he used the media attention focussed on him to build a network, and that effort is paying off: Now, hundreds, even thousands of supporters are taking to the streets in cities and towns across the country, demanding his release — and that is a new development.

A mix of pity and suspicion

Pollsters like Lev Gudkov, however, are skeptical about whether Navalny can actually unleash a massive protest movement. "Attitudes toward him are complicated and depend on a person's age and where they get their information," says Gudkov, the director of Moscow's renowned Levada Center, an independent non-governmental polling association. Speaking with DW, Gudkov says, "Young people on social networks reacted much more strongly to news of an attempted assassination attempt against him."  

Some 40% of young Russians believe he was targeted, whereas only about 5% of older Russians, especially those in rural areas whose primary source of information is state television, believe that to be the case. Gudkov says the fact that many older Russians in the countryside don't believe Navalny was poisoned, or that the whole incident was a provocation orchestrated by Western intelligence agencies, shows that "Kremlin propaganda," in which Russian state media portrays the opposition figure as a criminal, is working. 

Against that backdrop, it is no wonder that a Levada Center poll from November 2020 — three months after Navalny's poisoning — found that only 2% of Russians would vote for Navalny if he were a presidential candidate. That is a number that has remained steady for years.

Police in Moscow block a snow-filled street
Russians may admire Navalny's willingness to sacrifice but may not be willing to follow him in the endImage: Maxim Shemetov/REUTERS/REUTERS

Why so many Russians remain reserved about protests

In his investigative videos, often laced with ironic slang, Navalny seems to speak directly to young Russians. But Gudkov says even though school kids like sharing Navalny's videos on TikTok, they are not the main target of his messaging. "Young people watch his videos but they remain passive. The ones who react are those with a bit of life experience, people between the ages of 25 and 40," says the sociologist. He goes on to explain that middle-class Russians, especially those in big cities, see a direct link between Putin's policies and Russia's economic stagnation.

Austrian Russia expert Gerhard Mangott from the University of Innsbruck agrees: "Not everyone who took to the streets on Saturday (January 23) did so for Navalny, and not everyone would, for instance, vote for him in a presidential election. A large number of citizens were out there because they are frustrated by economic recession, lack of economic recovery, sinking wages, political corruption and the everyday corruption they face in their own lives," as Mangott told DW

Looking ahead, Lev Gudkov says he doesn't expect mass protests. Firstly, because he believes the economic situation in Russia is relatively good and in no way comparable to neighboring Belarus, for instance, where demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko have been going on for months. Moreover, he doesn't see the willingness for sacrifice among the people that Navalny exhibited by returning to Russia despite the threat of arrest. "Admiration for Navalny will grow," says Gudkov, "People may think: 'He is something special, a warrior, but we aren't. We admire him but we aren't going to emulate him.'" That, says Gudkov, is conformity, a legacy of the Soviet era.