Mark Episkopos: The Truth Behind Russia’s Navalny Protests

Navalny Protests in Russia

By Mark Episkopos, The National Interest, 1/25/21

Throngs of protesters took to the streets last Saturday in what the Russian authorities have called “unsanctioned” demonstrations. Nominally, the actions were aimed at protesting the recent arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. But as the day unfolded, the demonstrations took on the form of a generic anti-government protest. The police were dispatched to disperse the crowds, resulting in a slew of violent clashes. There were reportedly 3,500 arrests in total; of the 1,373 arrested in Moscow, over 700 were released over the weekend. Attendance tallies remain somewhat contested. Early reports noted as many as 40,000 protesters had gathered in Moscow alone, but more recent estimates have seen that number revised down to around 15,000 in the capital and thousands more in major Russian cities including St. Petersburg and Vladivostok.

Although far from trivial in scale, the protests sparked by Navalny’s detention appear not to have attracted nearly as many participants as the 50,000-strong anti-government protests of 2019. This deflated attendance is perhaps at least partly the result of preemptive measures taken by Russian authorities. In the days leading up to the demonstrations, Russian officials told students—and their parents—that participation in Saturday’s protests will be recorded and reported to their schools; university students were issued similar warnings.

There is little question that the protests, and the measures taken by Russian police to quell them, have been a thorn in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side. The demonstrations would have been a political liability at any time, but especially in the run-up to Russia’s September parliamentary elections. Not only Navalny’s supporters but potentially any Kremlin opponent can now claim to have been the victim of a repressive regime that criminalizes dissent.

Even so, Washington’s policy approach must incorporate a series of long-overdue truths about the Kremlin and the state of the Russian opposition. First, it is grossly premature to view the Saturday protests as a popular referendum on the Kremlin. There is no compelling evidence that a significant portion, let alone anywhere near a majority, of Russians support the violent overthrow of the Putin government. According to the most recent polling data, President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating sits steadily in the mid-60 percent range. 

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