TThe future looked indescribably bleak for Alexei Navalny supporters ahead of this week’s protests. Their charismatic leader was in prison and, according to his doctors’ accounts, on the brink of death as the Kremlin threatened to ban his entire movement. Sensing an impending apocalypse, one attendee dubbed the protest: “The final battle between normal people and absolute evil.”
What followed was surprisingly normal: a core of tens of thousands of Navalny supporters gathered near the Kremlin, waving mobile phone torches and shouting “Putin is a thief!” The police fell back in Moscow (there was a violent repression in St. Petersburg). For one night, crowds roamed the streets of the capital at will.
“This feeling of enthusiasm, of overcoming fear, the protest ended on a positive note … It left me with the feeling that nothing is lost, it is not yet the final battle, and that the street protests in Russia are not over for always, “said Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Navalny’s Anti-corruption Foundation, in an interview from Europe.
But the euphoria is unlikely to last. Navalny will likely be behind bars for years to come. His aides are in exile or under house arrest. And a court on Monday may label his movement extremist, threatening his supporters with the same punishments that are meted out to members of banned organizations like the Islamic State.
For the first time since Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president in 2000, the democratic opposition is about to be driven underground, into a reality that more closely resembles neighboring Belarus.
“For the opposition, it’s really about surviving now,” said Professor Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London. “If we get to a position where everyone who matters is in exile or in jail, then it’s not about what the leadership does, but what the common people do. Do you get to a point where people are so fed up and scared of where things are going that you have a lot of dissent? “
For the past decade, Navalny succeeded in a way that had eluded previous opposition politicians. He became a true national figure, personally vilified by the Kremlin and Putin, but also recognized by most ordinary Russians. He has also been a tireless organizer, inspiring a generation of fans to persist despite increasingly dire difficulties.
“There will always be protest, whether Navalny is free or not,” said Irina Yusupova, a high school student at Wednesday’s protest, when asked about the future of the movement. “Even if [they call us extremist]I’ll find a way to protest. “
There is no obvious substitute for Navalny. Many high-profile anti-Putin activists have been forced into exile or assassinated. This week Vladimir MilovA close colleague of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader shot dead in 2015 outside the Kremlin, announced that he had left for Europe to avoid arrest.
He joins Navalny’s top colleagues Leonid Volkov and Zhdanov, who have already fled abroad to avoid imprisonment. Other allies like Vladimir Ashurkov are based in London, which is also home to some of the journalists behind Navalny’s highly successful investigations.
The Kremlin came close to assassinating Navalny last summer, when an undercover team from the FSB spy agency poisoned him with novichok in Siberia. While Navalny was in a coma in a Russian hospital, Putin made the decision to allow him to leave the country and receive medical treatment in Germany. The president’s apparent calculation: Navalny would not return.
The strategy was old. In the 1970s, KGB chief Yuri Andropov realized that the most effective way to silence and render troubled dissidents irrelevant was to throw them west. The Soviet Union expelled many of the country’s leading writers and intellectuals, including Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and physicist Yuri Orlov.
However, Navalny was different. A lawyer by training, he ignored the argument of some of his nervous assistants that he could stay in Germany, at least for a little longer. In January, he flew back to Moscow, knowing that he would be arrested immediately. It was an act of historic bravery. What followed was grimly predictable. He was quickly jailed for violation of probation and sent to a penal colony, where he embarked on a hunger strike.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Navalny ally who returned to Moscow despite being poisoned twice, believes the decision was the right one. “Once a political opponent is outside his own country, he very quickly loses not only the everyday connections that you need to feel reality.” He explained. “More important than that, they would lose any moral authority.”
Time will tell if it was a misstep. “I don’t know if they will detain Navalny for a week or 10 years,” Zhdanov said. “I try not to think about it. The important thing is to keep fighting.”
His advisers say the opposition will triumph, despite a constitutional amendment allowing Putin to remain in office until 2036, when he will turn 83. “The Russian opposition is historically destined to win. We are younger, smarter than them, ”Volkov told the Observer recently.
Some commentators endorse this optimistic view, although they acknowledge that it currently appears “naive.” David clark, a former special adviser to the late Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, noted that regimes do not necessarily solve their problems by assassinating opposition figures, citing the example of Steve Biko, assassinated in 1977 in custody by the apartheid government of South Africa, who it collapsed 14 years ago. later.
Clark predicted that dissent in Russia would continue in new and unpredictable forms. In recent years, protesters have taken to the streets over a number of issues: fraudulent Duma elections in 2011-2012 and plans to raise the retirement age in 2018. Last summer, thousands of residents in the city of Khabarovsk In the far east, they marched for a period of several months after the Kremlin arrested its popular regional governor.
“New movements can form spontaneously out of frustrations. They continue to achieve a moment of their own, ”Clark noted.
“What history shows us,” he added, “even in Europe in 1989, is that no matter how well organized a police state apparatus is, you cannot effectively plan these scenarios or protect against them.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism