Foreign Policy

Navalny’s Bravery Is Unlikely to Shift Putin’s Entrenched Energy

On Jan. 23, tens of thousands of people across Russia turned out for demonstrations to support the release of the activist Alexey Navalny, who had returned to Russia on Jan. 17 five months after being poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade chemical weapon. On landing, Navalny was immediately arrested and is currently being held in a Moscow prison facing extended incarceration on highly dubious criminal charges.

Yet Navalny is not sitting idle. Shortly after his arrest, his Anti-Corruption Foundation released a video purporting to show Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sprawling Black Sea palace. Immediately before that, the Anti-Corruption Foundation released a list of the top eight Russian nationals whom the West should sanction if it wants to combat the avarice of Putin’s circle. The widespread and blatant corruption of Putin and other Russian elites, the constant perversion of justice, and stagnating living standards have left large swaths of the Russian public disaffected with the regime, hence the massive turnout for demonstrations.

But don’t expect a street revolution or the end of Putinism anytime soon. Navalny’s actions, though brave and sufficient to further diminish the popularity of Putin and the ruling United Russia party, currently have almost no chance of immediately deposing the current regime. The reason for this is that Navalny, though popular among a substantial number of Russians and able to mobilize large street protests, has little if any support from political and business elites on a local, regional, or national level. Many of these elites are indeed the people who have been the main target for Navalny’s crusade against corruption.

If Navalny wants to seize control of the country through a revolution of the street, he needs allies within the circles of the elite. Russian history and the successful “color revolutions” in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine illustrate this starkly. Consider the two most recent examples from Russia’s neighbors: Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution and Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. In both cases, though street protest played a big role in pressuring the change in regime, the protesters were abetted by the internal weakness of the regimes they were confronting.

Georgia’s revolution was the culmination of a multiyear erosion of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze’s hold on power, with many key members of Shevardnadze’s Union of Citizens of Georgia party defecting to the opposition, most prominently Mikhail Saakashvili, Shevardnadze’s justice minister who went on to lead the demonstrators’ storming of Georgia’s parliament. Ukraine saw a similar dynamic, where President Viktor Yanukovych’s hold on power—which was already tenuous due to the political divisions among the Ukrainian elite—collapsed under public pressure.

Neither Shevardnadze nor Yanukovych had a deep reserve of security forces to call on. Once the internal security battalions they had raised specifically to combat demonstrations were overrun or fled, that was it. Both nations’ militaries at the time were dysfunctional conscript affairs hollowed out by decades of corruption. The generals and foot soldiers alike had no interest in becoming involved in politics, calculating correctly as it turned out that a shift in power would do little to impact them directly.

Russia and the Putin regime are an entirely different animal. The Russian term for political power is vlast, and it implies the authorities as much as the power itself. Taming it comes through control of the organs of the Russian state, especially the so-called “power ministries”: the interior, military, and security services. Asserting control over these ministries as well as the wider bureaucracy and the political system comes through utilizing the sticks and carrots that Russian rulers since the time of the tsars have wielded to ensure compliance and loyalty.

In Putin’s Russia, those oligarchs who acknowledged Putin’s supremacy were able to remain within the structure of power and profit. Those who continued to challenge Putin, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, found themselves hounded by agents of the bureaucracy. This state-sanctioned self-enrichment and abuse of power happens on all levels of government, abetting the very corruption that Navalny claims he is fighting against.

To be sure, there have been plenty of revolutions in Russia—but each came in part because the regime’s grip over those institutions of power had already slipped. The 1905 revolution prompted by Russia’s shocking defeat in the Russo-Japanese War consisted of a series of mass protests, workers strikes, and armed insurrections, all of which were brutally suppressed but created enough pressure to convince Tsar Nicholas II to implement reforms, including granting a constitution and establishing a parliament. Of course, the gains were short-lived as the tsar reasserted his full control in the counterrevolution of 1907, leaving the new parliament as a futile appendix with little if any power.

What saved Nicholas II in 1905 was the consistent loyalty of the power ministries: his secret police, the military, and his personal security reserve in the form of the Cossacks. These same forces could not save the tsar in 1917, when Bolshevik revolutionaries brought down the Russian Empire and the tsars with it. The key difference was that three years of war had decimated not only the economy but also the military, leading to widespread mutinies. The end of the tsars had taken nearly 100 years of failed attempts, from the Decembrist revolt of 1825 to the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 to the Potemkin mutiny of 1905 until, finally, the 1917 revolution tore the whole structure down.

The more recent change in Russia’s regime from the Soviet Union to the modern Russian state again required a conspiracy of factors that worked in the opposition’s favor. The primary leader of the Russian opposition, Boris Yeltsin, like Navalny, played the populist card well, complaining loudly and always in the range of a microphone about shortages, corruption, and inefficiency.

Yet Yeltsin’s timing and tactics were very different from Navalny’s. Navalny has always been a political outsider—which gives him his credibility. Yeltsin, on the other hand, was a political insider like Saakashvili, who also like his later Georgian counterpart defected to the opposition. Yeltsin had begun his career as a construction foreman in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), where one of his most well-regarded accomplishments was supervising the demolition of the house where Nicholas II and his family were butchered. Yeltsin used his political savvy to climb the party ranks until he became a member of the Politburo, the Soviet Union’s highest political body, brought on by Mikhail Gorbachev, another reformer.

Yeltsin and Gorbachev fell out, and Gorbachev had Yeltsin kicked out of the Politburo before he could resign. Yet a mere two years later, in 1989, Gorbachev held free and fair elections, and Yeltsin was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies, where he was, after substantial effort, able to build a coalition of support between nationalists and democrats that dominated the unwieldy body and see himself elected as chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin then used his position to gradually undermine Gorbachev, who, through a series of reforms, was trying to save the Soviet Union.

Ultimately Yeltsin positioned himself as president of the Russian Republic within the Soviet Union and first among equals of the other republic-level presidents. When the aborted 1991 August Coup happened, Yeltsin became one of the major faces of resistance. The coup leaders, the State Committee on the State of Emergency, seemed to have control of the apparatus of the state, but they did not have the will to use it. Troops were in Moscow, but no orders came: no orders to disperse the demonstrators and no orders to storm the government offices and arrest Yeltsin. (He had escaped arrest by chance early in the coup.) The coup leaders did not want a blood bath and ultimately caved. Two years later, Yeltsin used many of the same units to crush an insurrection against his own authority.

If we look at the conditions that facilitated previous regime changes in Russia and its neighboring states and compare them to the current situation, it does not bode well for Navalny’s chances. Putin has presided over a corrupt and brutal regime, but that has also allowed him to fully consolidate control over the Russian organs of state. Putin is in a far more secure situation than Yeltsin ever was: His political party dominates the government at all levels, and the endemic corruption in Russia means that private enterprise large and small continues to be predicated on the goodwill of the Putin political machine, leading employers to pressure their employees to stay out of politics. While Russia might be undergoing a constitutional transition to prepare for the time when Putin will relinquish power, it is a transition that will ensure that those already in Putin’s circle will continue to maintain their positions and see their interests looked after.

Navalny’s protests are not wholly in vain. His actions will undermine an already unpopular regime heading into parliamentary elections in September and continue to mobilize a new generation of young Russians who have only ever known Putin and now are imagining a world without him. Perhaps gradually a new opposition will grow from these seeds. Yet this will take years, and there is no imminent color revolution at hand.

The current regime is too resilient, protected by layers of security forces and aligned interests. Protesters will turn up in mass numbers for days, possibly weeks, but they will be intimidated and brutalized by the police. If the police are somehow unable to handle the crowd, the National Guard, which answers directly to Putin, will be called in. If in the unlikely chance the National Guard also needs support, the army can still be called on. Unlike its Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts, the increasingly professional Russian army has a history of crushing rebellions and in all likelihood will obey whatever orders it is given. Unless substantial figures within the current regime begin to defect to Navalny’s cause, the chance of street protest alone provoking a change of government is dubious. The day may come that the conditions are ripe for a change in regime, but there are no indications that time is here yet.

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