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Russia: Is jailing the opposition a good way to win?

The Kremlin is facing growing public dissent following the sentencing of Navalny and arrest of thousands of protesters.

March 9, 2021 - Tatsiana Kulakevich - Articles and Commentary

Rally in support of Alexei Navalny in Nizhny Novgorod, 31st January 2021. Minin and Pozharsky Square. Photo: Aleksei Trefilov wikimedia.org

After the arrest and sentencing of the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, Russia faced a level of popular protest that has not been seen for several years. Nearly 3,500 protesters were arrested in a subsequent police crackdown across the vast country. Demonstrations were held in more than 100 cities and towns, from Russia’s Far East and Siberia to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and the most prominent face of Russia’s opposition, was detained after he flew back to Moscow from Berlin. He had been recovering in Germany from a near-fatal nerve agent attack in Russia last August.

While authoritarian leaders often jail opposition figures as a means of instilling fear in their opponents, this did not work this time. The imprisonment of the outspoken blogger, who has millions of followers on social media, seems to have encouraged a popular uprising in the country. Recent events have demonstrated the scale of fatigue felt by the population with regards to the stagnant, decades-old political order led by Putin.

How effective is the tactic of repression?

Fear and intimidation have been a central part of the toolkit used by authoritarian governments to keep their societies under control. Russia, Belarus, Thailand and many other authoritarian governments are well known for imprisoning opposition leaders. Whilst these authorities have used repression as a means of forcefully breaking up protest movements, this tactic does not necessarily guarantee a strategic victory for the regime in question.

For example, the Thai government issued arrest warrants for dozens of student protest leaders last August. Several of these high-profile figures were subsequently arrested in an attempt to dismantle the anti-government student-protest movement. These actions, however, failed to stop protests in the country.

The Belarusian government removed several of Lukashenka’s rivals before the presidential election last summer. In August Minsk jailed Viktar Babaryka, a prominent banker, as well as the popular blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Protests continue to this day in Belarus.

The Kremlin’s use of repressive laws to crackdown on the country’s protest movement may give the impression that the government has claimed ‘victory’ in this fight. Despite this, Navalny’s return and subsequent imprisonment transformed the opposition leader into a unifying symbol for the movement. The government’s subsequent use of brutal repression has only reinforced public discontent with the authorities.

Do leaderless protests have a chance of survival?

While imprisoning top opposition leaders may delay or reduce a movement’s activities, it could encourage citizens to continue their protests in other ways. This is because an individual’s decision to protest is ultimately related to their own understanding of ongoing events. State attempts to stop protests at a time when civil society is becoming increasingly organised simply do not guarantee the end of an opposition movement. Leaderless protests in Khabarovsk and Belarus have demonstrated that public discontent can last despite repression.

Perceived repression may instill fear or elicit anger among people. Individuals decide whether or not to get involved in protests on the basis of the perceived costs and benefits of participation. Increased costs may negatively impact perceptions regarding the effectivenessof political action. At the same time, this could increase grievancesamong the population and encourage participation.

When last year’s presidential election in Belarus supposedly resulted in Lukashenka claiming 80 per cent of the vote, Belarusians poured into the streets to protest against what they saw as a fraud. The main opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya had to flee the country in fear for her life. However, brutal police violence in the country only triggered larger protests, which continue to this day. Moreover, the protesters’ experience of repression has helped forge a new political identity in Belarus, with many embracing the historic white-red-white flag as a symbol of protest. These experiences and symbols also function as moral and social incentives to participate in further protests.

In Russia, Navalny quickly demonstrated his ability to embarrass the Kremlin even from behind bars. Within hours his investigation into “Putin’s Palace” gained millions of views. While issues of corruption in the Russian government are well known in the country, the video’s detailed discussion of the “largest bribe in history” made these issues an almost personal matter for many Russians. The unprecedented amount of protesters that appeared across Russia’s vast territory shows that society has become increasingly opposed to the government.

What’s next?

Whilst it is true that protests are often effective, they do not usually work in the way that many people think. No matter how brave the protesters, a state often has the ability to inflict costs on ordinary protesters that are difficult to withstand. In 1989, the Chinese government killed thousands of protesters in Tiananmen Square, crushing the country’s emerging pro-democracy movement. In 2019-20, authorities in Hong Kong tackled dissent with increasingly advanced technical tools. These included facial recognition cameras, personal data connected to ID documents, and information captured by contactless payment cards.

Force and repression can keep things under control for a while. However, these tactics also make government rule much more fragile. Whilst it may seem that protests often fail in the short term, much of their power can be found in their long-term effects. Protests work because they direct attention toward injustice, often change popular opinion, and let authorities know that their actions will face opposition. This is especially true if protesters are willing to take serious risks for their cause.

Elections to the State Duma, which must be held by September, will likely dominate Russia’s political calendar in 2021. Even though Russia’s opposition has now taken what it calls ‘a strategic pause’ in order to plan for the year ahead, Navalny’s team has already demonstrated its ability to sustain protest activities in a safer format. For instance, the group has called on Russians in major cities to stand outside their homes and hold up their cellphone flashlights at eight o’clock in the evening for 15 minutes.

The upcoming elections present a legitimacy crisis for the Kremlin. It is expected that there will be significant voter manipulation during the campaign. This will likely lead to greater civil unrest and a high risk of violent suppression, which might trigger further civil unrest, posing a threat to the country’s long-term stability if Moscow does not make concessions.

Tatsiana Kulakevich is a lecturer at University of South Florida and research fellow at USF Institute on Russia.

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