By Caroline Sha
“You have your own life at stake. Every additional year of Putin staying in power is one more year of decay,” declares a modestly-dressed blue-eyed man in a YouTube video. This is Alexei Navalny, a man often considered to be Vladimir Putin’s greatest threat. What he is encouraging in the video is a widespread protest against the Russian election scheduled to take place the next Sunday. And it clearly worked. Despite the freezing temperatures, on January 28, 1,500 protesters lined Moscow’s Manezh Square in solidarity with his cause, chanting “Down with the Czar!”
The overall goal of these protests was to express dissent over Navalny’s barring from the election. In December 2017, the Russian government announced that Navalny would not be able to run as a presidential candidate in view of a fraud conviction he received earlier that year. This move was criticized by Navalny’s supporters as a play to stop Putin’s most potent competitor from directly challenging him. That is, if Navanly was to run, it would upset the carefully planned landslide victory that Putin has planned for himself.
Putin is set to run against seven opponents who many critics say are planted by the Russian government to create a semblance of democracy. Because of Putin’s tight control over his country, there is an extremely low chance that any of them would actually win. Considering the government monopoly on Russian television, hardly any of them would be able to transmit their messages. There are no presidential debates and no significant rallies. Now that Navalny is out from the race, Putin’s biggest concern is rather the expected low voter turnout. To him, this election is about showing the world that Russia wants him and broadcasting his tight control over the nation. In fact, Putin is so unworried about his chance of winning that he is trying to put on a fair election. In 2012, he was accused of rigging the vote for his presidency and it seems like this year, he doesn't want a repeat of that disaster. There is no chance that anyone can take the reins of the Kremlin from him.
However, perhaps in the future, Alexei Navalny would be able to bring the liberal shakeup that some in Russia have desperately been waiting for. Charismatic and tech-savvy, he embodies the idea of a modern statesman. Navalny often employs memes in his videos and has a strong social media presence. A scroll through his Instagram reveals a family man with a penchant for taking selfies. To the Russian youths, Navalny is relatable and in touch with modern culture. Contrast this with the traditionalist Putin whose official press releases show him as macho man riding horses shirtless and going in submarines. The culture clash between these two men is glaring.
But Navalny did not rise to popularity just through selfies. Throughout his career as a blogger, he has criticized Putin without fail. As head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, he and his colleagues spend much of their time investigating corruption among high officials in Russia. From spokesmen to oligarchs, there is perhaps no one from whom Navalny cowers from criticizing. Despite the multitude of Putin dissenters who have been killed in the past for speaking up, Navalny constantly tackles issues like the expensive homes of government officials who, according to public records, are not making nearly enough to buy them. As a result, he has become a sort of hero among Russia’s grassroot movements, positioned against the oligarchy and bribery that permeates the entirety of Kremlin. From the 2011 protests to now, he has been through it all and his popularity is remained especially high for an opposition leader.
But that doesn’t mean Navalny’s road has been an easy one. Even though he has been fortunate enough as not to be killed, he still has had to face the law. In October of 2017, he was sentenced to twenty days in jail for calling his supporters to an unsanctioned protest. Hours before the January 28th, his headquarters was broken into by the police during a live video broadcast on suspicions of a bomb threat. And during the protests themselves, he was arrested once again and later freed, ordered to appear in court at a later date. The law is not on Navalny's side, yet he still wades on.
However, Navalny isn’t exactly a liberal saint. His previous actions seem to betray some nationalist views or at least a willingness to appeal to the far-right patriots in Russia. In August 2008, Navalny supported Russia’s war with Georgia while calling for all Georgians to be expelled from the Russian Federation. Though he apologized for the derogatory names he called the Georgians in his statements, he has not recanted the views themselves and has even said he still supports the same position. Moreover, he has also appeared at the Russian March whose purpose is to bring together all kinds of nationalist Russians, casting doubts on how progressive he really is. Furthermore, he has supported the Stop Feeding the Caucasus movement, which calls upon the Russian government to stop giving money to the governments in the Caucasus region. But racist or not, the strong left-leaning backing he owns has not yet faltered from him greatly.
What do these protests spell for Russia? For the near future, nothing much. Much of Russia still has some confidence in Putin and it is unlikely that anything new will happen during the election. Putin will secure the victory, though perhaps not by the margins he desires. There is a long and cold path for Navalny supporters and for Navanly himself. Will Russia reinvent itself in the 21st century or even the next one? Perhaps, but until then, only the tides of time will know what the future holds for the land of snow.