A chink in Kremlin’s armour

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen at the passport control point at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, 2021.   | Photo Credit: AFP

The violent demonstrations last weekend in more than 100 cities across Russia in support of opposition politician Alexei Navalny were unlike any of the protests in the country under President Vladimir Putin’s rule, say commentators. The rallies, in which thousands have been detained, have been compared with several weekends of public demonstrations since August in neighbouring Belarus calling for the president to resign. There is also a growing sense that the unrest in Russia represents as much support for the 44-year-old anti-corruption crusader as it does opposition to the ruling regime, stemming from falling living standards, compounded by the pandemic. Mr. Navalny himself has been held in detention since his return from Germany on January 17 after recovering from a nerve agent attack that took place last August. If the charges against him are confirmed by the Kremlin-backed judiciary, he could be incarcerated for years.

Reactions from the West

Western governments, which are at pains to formulate a unified position under the new U.S. administration, something that had proved elusive during the Trump presidency, have called for tough measures against Moscow. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, is to probe the chemical weapon attack on Mr. Navalny. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has termed Moscow’s crackdown on Mr. Navalny and the protesters as “a violation of human rights”.

Editorial | Poison and prison: On political importance of Navalny

The European Union (EU)’s stance vis-à-vis Russia continues to reflect deep divisions that characterised its response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict in Ukraine. Polish President Andrzej Duda deployed tough language as he called for sanctions against Russia’s state-owned gas giant Gazprom. He even said that the visit of EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, to the country next month would be a “mistake”. Such a hard stance would be viewed in EU capitals as no more than echoing Warsaw’s historic animosity with Moscow. On the contrary, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach has reflected a concern for stability on the bloc’s eastern flanks arising from Russia’s regional ambitions, without jeopardising its energy dependence on Moscow.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is doing everything to appear not unduly concerned over the unrest. Moscow was unfazed when there was large-scale opposition to Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, and when opposition candidates were banned from the 2019 elections for the Moscow City Duma.

A stronger opposition

The crackdown on the opposition is likely to intensify at least until parliamentary elections later this year. President Putin’s ratings have steadily dipped in opinion polls, as has support for his United Russia party. This risks his present supermajority in the Duma. The regime has aptly picked another target, namely Mr. Navalny’s so-called ‘smart voting’ initiative, which encourages the electorate to exercise their right to vote strategically to favour the opposition. The method yielded impressive gains for the opposition in the 2019 municipal polls across Russia, and also in the local elections in Siberia in September where Mr. Navalny was campaigning before he was poisoned.

Also read | Russia hits out at U.S. over Navalny rallies

The government has expanded the designation of “foreign agents,” a label introduced in 2012 and aimed to stigmatise NGOs that received funding from overseas. The label now covers foreign-backed media houses, with stringent monitoring of their finances and other activities, and could include dissident contestants.

Irrespective of what happens to Mr. Navalny, his courage has galvanised opposition to the Kremlin, prompting a large band of activists to stake their lives to restore the rule of law and basic freedoms for all. Coinciding with his detention was another exposé linking Mr. Putin to an opulent £1 billion development on the Black Sea coast. An end to the uncertainty gripping Russia seems elusive.

Garimella Subramaniam is Director - Strategic Initiatives, AgnoShin Technologies

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 11:58:21 PM |

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