Alexei Navalny Inspires Big Anti-Putin Protests, but No Russian Spring—Yet

Unauthorized demonstrations were held in around 100 towns and cities across Russia this weekend, the most significant display of anti-government sentiment for years. They were spurred by the attempted assassination and then arrest of pro-democracy and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny.

Russian police arrested around 3,000 people at this weekend's events, where tens of thousands of people expressed their anger at the government despite concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, below freezing temperatures and heavy-handed riot police.

Observers described the scale of the protests as unprecedented, while the BBC reported that the demonstration in Moscow was the largest in the city for nearly a decade. International media interest was intense given the recent attempt to kill Navalny, and the decision to arrest him on his return to Russia from Germany earlier this month.

The White House, too, watched events unfold closely. President Joe Biden called for the "unconditional release" of Navalny and the protesters arrested this weekend. Biden is expected to take a tougher line on President Vladimir Putin than his predecessor, and the nationwide protests have handed the White House an early public affairs win.

But Putin is no stranger to demonstrations, and has weathered many scandals, opposition leaders and protest movements in his 20 years running Russia. His critics might be hopeful of a "Russian Spring" of sorts, but such an event does not appear imminent.

"This is just the start of a process," Mark Galeotti, a professor at University College London and expert in Russian politics, told Newsweek. "I think it is noteworthy, first of all, because clearly had the demonstrations not shown much of a turnout, then it probably would have been a fatal blow against Navalny's movement."

"They took a gamble by trying to basically call these protests in the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic at one week's notice," Galeotti said. "And the fact that actually, it was such a substantial event—and particularly that it was something that took place across the country and across a whole variety of different age and demographic groups—is significant."

"It's not a revolution, it's not going to bring down Putin," Galeotti added. "But what it does do is, I think, it restarts a process that in some ways got lost in the last year—like everything else in the midst of the pandemic. It's once again for focusing attention on the need for some kind of superstructural political changes, to address a whole variety of specific concerns and problems that people have."

The past year has been difficult for Putin, who faced broad criticism for his absence during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. The president isolated early having come into contact with an infected doctor, and delegated many of his key responsibilities to Kremlin underlings or regional leaders.

The pandemic disruption delayed a national vote on Putin's plans to stay in power, and has also pushed back landmark prestige projects he promised would improve the lives of normal Russians.

Rather than improving the lives of Russians, the pandemic has forced lockdowns and driven down living standards. The coronavirus pandemic dominated 2020, which was supposed to be an important year in Putin's legacy building mission.

Putin and his United Russia party allies are now eyeing the September legislative elections, keen to record—or rather design—a thumping victory. But the pandemic, Navalny, and simmering discontent all threaten the scale of the party's foregone triumph.

Too big an intervention via obvious election rigging might create more unrest. "We saw in Belarus what happens when people really feel that the government is disregarding the realities of the situation," Galeotti noted.

This weekend's protests were notable for the variety of the demonstrators. "This is about simply saying that we have a regime which is lawless and corrupt, and is stealing from everybody," Galeotti said. "This just simply becomes the catalytic moment, and everyone brings their own concerns out onto the streets."

The protests were still dominated by the young liberals who have driven past demonstrations. But the key grievances—corruption, cronyism, and the lack of accountability—appeal to Russians from across the spectrum.

For all his coverage in the West, Navalny has traditionally struggled to build a support base and momentum in Russia. He has been blacklisted by state media and Putin would not even say his name in public, something that has not changed since the August assassination effort against Navalny and his subsequent return to Russia.

It is hard to say how popular Navalny is among Russians, but they increasingly at least know who he is. "A majority don't actually believe he was poisoned by the Kremlin," Galeotti noted. "They think it's a stunt or amiss, or a Western provocation or something. But in a way, that doesn't matter so much. Because the point is that actually it means he moves from being a non-person to a person. And that's always been his big challenge."

Navalny now needs to build support outside the metropolitan centers where a more liberal, connected population is more open to his appeal. He needs to reach the regions, something he and his supporters have been trying to do for some time. Indeed, he was poisoned while in Siberia drumming up support for opposition candidates and working on a corruption investigation.

Many observers noted that the attempted assassination, and now arrest, of Navalny speaks to how much Putin and his allies fear the anti-corruption campaigner. Even after he was arrested, Navalny's team released a video exposé detailing Putin's $1.3 billion Black Sea mansion, which now has more than 86 million views.

"Once you make an opposition leader into the 'Voldemort' of your own personal story, then that does say something," Galeotti said of Putin's past refusal to even say Navalny's name.

"But I think the point here is we shouldn't be focusing just on Navalny," Galeotti added. "He is a charismatic individual, and an effective organizer and so forth. It's more to the point of what Navalny represents."

Russia-watchers have long debated what will follow Putin. Now 68, the president has been public in his desire to create a framework through which he can relinquish control, though many refuse to believe he would give up the power he has held for so long.

In 2024 his term will end, and the strongman leader may take up a different role and hand the presidency—even if it is stripped of some powers—to a successor. Putin might also engineer a way to continue ruling, if not as president then in another position.

Either way, Navalny's campaigns and growing support in Russia represent an alternative future for the country whether he or someone else is leading it.

He represents a more liberal, more democratic, more modern nation, though some of his past nationalistic comments would be considered xenophobic, even racist in the West.

"This is the 44-year-old squaring off against a 68-year-old," Galeotti said. "Or to put it another way, this is sort of the last generation of Homo Sovieticus being faced by the first proper post-Soviet generation politician."

Police beat Navalny protesters in Moscow, Russia
Riot police beat protesters during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow, Russia on January 23, 2021. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images/Getty