Alexei Navalny was imprisoned for 15 days for handing out fliers for a protest he planned to lead along with fellow Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. By the time the anti-corruption crusader was released from prison on Friday, Nemtsov had been shot and killed. Navalny was still in jail when the protest he had planned alongside his ally drew tens of thousands of mourners to the streets who dropped hundreds of bouquets heaped on the bridge where Nemtsov was shot and left for dead.
The demonstration last month was the largest Russia has seen in years, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to gain any sort of mass following. That’s partly because some believe Putin was behind the murder of Nemtsov, which occurred in the shadow of the Kremlin.
“Up to now this has been an unpleasantly authoritarian regime, but it has not been a really brutal totalitarian one. It arrests and harasses people. It does not have them gunned down in the streets,” Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert based at New York University told ThinkProgress in a phone interview.
He doesn’t find it likely that the Kremlin — or even Putin himself — was behind the murder, but says Nemtsov’s death will have a real impact on political dissent.
“It could give [opposition forces] this new energy, or it could actually plunge them more into despair — into a sense that there’s really no point in getting involved in politics, because at best, you’ll end up being a bloodstain on the streets,” he said.
For his part, Navalny has been defiant.
“We won’t reduce our efforts; we won’t step back,” he told reporters after he was released from a Moscow detention center last week. “That terrorist act didn’t achieve its aim; it didn’t frighten anyone.”
He’s one who can talk. Navalny has been called “the man Vladimir Putin fears most.” But Navalny was a relatively unknown figure until 2010 when he revealed a $4 billion dollar embezzlement scheme at a state-run oil pipeline company. Navalny new notoriety landed himself on what he called “the very blacked part of the black list” since the pipeline company was headed by none other than Putin himself.
Navalny’s low-budget anti-corruption blog quickly became required reading for an array of political malcontents tired of the usual brant of dissent, and drew hundreds of thousands of readers a day.
In May 2012, the day before Putin was to be inaugurated into his third term as president in an election marred by fraud, tens of thousands took to the streets in protests. Police closed in on them at Bolotnya Square, and when protesters tried to break through their line, they responded with force, arresting hundreds including key protest organizers.
During this time, Navalny rose to greater prominence and announced his candidacy to be the mayor of Moscow.
In what was widely believed to be a politically motivated case, he was found guilty of misappropriating funds at a timber company where he used to work just months after he announced his candidacy. At the end of last year, he was convicted on similar charges in relation to his financial dealings with a French cosmetics company. While Navalny’s sentences were in both cases suspended, the convictions bar him from running in elections. Under these sentences his movements are limited to Moscow. If Navalny leaves the city, meant he can face weeks of house arrest.
Navalny’s story is the story of many of the opposition leaders who stood up Putin’s political machinations. Many of the most prominent ones have been jailed, put under house arrest, or forced into exile.
“The [opposition leaders] we know now have been thoroughly discredited and essentially denied any and all resources to be able to successfully resist,” Richard E. Ericson, an economics professor and Russia watcher at East Carolina University said in a phone interview.
Given this climate of repression, he says its unlikely that Navalny or other leaders will be able to galvanize support once again. According to Ericson, it’ll take renewed protest — and a fresh crop of dissidents to break through the Kremlin’s defenses enough to spark any sort of change.
“Another set of very bad circumstances is apt to lead, at some point, to a — not an uprising or an organized revolution — but such dissatisfaction and some localized violence that will naturally bring new leaders sort of like Navalny was brought forth a few years ago,” he said.
Beyond the climate of fear created by such arrests and, perhaps even a murder for political purposes, there’s a deep fog of apathy that hangs over many in Russia.
“[There] is a failure in imagination and hope,” Mark Galeotti of NYU said. “For a lot of people, they would be willing to protest, but if it seems absolutely pointless, then why bother. Why not spend your efforts having an evening with your family than delivering leaflets around some housing project?”
Navalny might be able to spark real change — but only if he takes his anti-corruption crusade away from the liberal, middle-class Muscovites who make up his support network, to the rest of the country.
“What Navalny could do is actually begin to connect corruption in high places with peoples’ day-to-day lives: the reason why your school hasn’t been renovated, the reason why the roads in your town are full of potholes, is because of corruption and embezzlement and so forth,” Galeotti explains. “He could reach out and actually talk to the people who are angry because of their day-to-day lives, and say, look, the reason your day-to-day lives are in such a state is because of decisions that get made in the Kremlin and by people close to the Kremlin, and I think he has the opportunity, but at the moment, to be honest, no, he hasn’t demonstrated that that’s an area he’s interested in going in.”
And without his ally Nemtsov, it’s going to be only harder to do.
“He was the beacon of light. He was the hope of the liberalizing forces because he was still an active politician and that’s been snuffed out,” Ericson said. “[Most Russians] clearly cannot speak out the way Nemtsov did. The opposition really is in the position where it has to weigh its words against its life, and that’s going to sink in just as the situation was in the Soviet Union.”