Navalny’s Revolutionary Zeal Feeds Global Headlines but Most Russians Prefer Stability & Steady Change Using Local Civic Activism

FILE PHOTO. Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia. © Getty Images / Sefa Karacan

By Natylie Baldwin, RT, 5/29/21

Alexey Navalny, the West’s favorite Russian opposition figure, is loved abroad, but remains a divisive figure within the country. However, that doesn’t mean Russians don’t want change, and there is plenty of local civic activism.

Navalny has risen to prominence internationally over the past six months, widely characterized overseas as a pro-Western liberal democrat who is being persecuted because he represents a popular and genuine threat to President Vladimir Putin’s government. However, polling from Levada, a pollster which has received Western funding and is considered a “foreign agent” in Russia, tells a different story, showing that 56% of Russians disapprove of the opposition figure’s activities (in journalism, politics & activism) with 19% sympathetic to his work.

In the political sense, only 2% of Russians would support Navalny if he were to run for the presidency. By contrast, 56% of voters, 28 times more, are ready to support another term for Putin, if an election were held now.

That said, the president’s relative popularity doesn’t mean there aren’t Russians who have genuine grievances.  These typically involve things that affect the standard of living in the country, like economic security, local infrastructure and environmental issues. Wages and standard of living conditions have stagnated or even decreased in Russia since 2014, because of a combination of factors, including sanctions, increased investment in the military (which was reduced again in 2017), the Covid-19 pandemic, and the government’s decision to continue favoring macroeconomic stability, with relative austerity for average citizens.

A significant number of those polled believe that attending his protests was prompted more by that kind of dissatisfaction than by support for the divisive Navalny; a majority of Russians are opposed to his actions.

Elena Bezrukova, a political scientist at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, found that most of the protest participants she’d interviewed in January gave “standard of living” as a driving force for their participation.

The majority of those she spoke to initially singled out Navalny as the main reason for protesting. “But,” she said, “poverty and low living standards were the most frequent answer to questions about general issues.” In addition, she believes that a combination of factors unrelated to the opposition figure have been driving civil unrest. “People have been affected by coronavirus fatigue, inflation, lower wages and the risk of losing their jobs,” Bezrukova added, “all of which create a general public alarm.”

However, this feeling of unease does not translate into any meaningful desire by Russians to overthrow the government.  Surveys indicate that, although a significant number are willing to voice displeasure with socioeconomic problems, they are much more inclined to sign a petition or to contact local officials than to engage in unauthorized street protests…

Read full article here.

Anatol Lieven: How to Avoid a Conflict in Belarus

Belarusian Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich

Excellent analysis here on social, political, economic and geopolitical realities of Belarus, and why US policymakers need to show judiciousness and discernment in how they handle the current situation. – Natylie

By Anatol Lieven, Responsible Statecraft, 5/25/21

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko forcing down an international commercial aircraft in order to arrest an opposition journalist seems to indicate increasing desperation. Ever since last year’s highly suspect elections reconfirmed Lukashenko in power, he has faced repeated street protests, which considerable police repression has failed to end.

The first U.S. and European response must obviously be to impose appropriate sanctions on Belarus. The question of what is “appropriate” should however be conditioned by the memory that in 2013, Washington and its European allies forced the plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales back home to land in Vienna, where Austrian police searched for the U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden. This incident caused similar protests from Latin American countries, Russia, and China that the West is now directing against Belarus. It should be another lesson for Washington to avoid creating precedents for breaking international law unless it wants other countries to follow suit.

Beyond the immediate question of how to respond to Lukashenko’s latest move looms a far larger one: should the protests in Belarus intensify and the Lukashenko regime fall — whether overthrown by the protestors, or ousted in a coup by disgruntled security officials from within the regime itself — how should Washington and the West react?
Above all, the West must avoid repeating the outcome of the 2014 revolution in Ukraine: civil war, Russian intervention, steep and prolonged economic decline, a bitterly divided society, and a country stuck in permanent suspension and semi-paralysis between Russia and the West. So if the proposed summit between Presidents Biden and Putin goes ahead next month, establishing mutual ground rules for managing the Belarusian crisis should be high on the agenda.

On the one hand, the United States should oppose violent repression by the Lukashenko regime, gain some understanding with Moscow that it, too, should discourage a harsh crackdown, and seek to open up a path to greater real democracy in Belarus. On the other hand, any U.S. strategy that fails to recognize both vital Russian state interests in Belarus and the necessity for Minsk of maintaining close economic and social links to Moscow will risk a catastrophic failure and a betrayal of the interests of the Belarusian people.

Relations between Lukashenko and Putin have frequently been strained, and they have no personal affection for each other. It does not seem likely that Moscow would want to make any great sacrifice to save the Lukashenko government as such. Nor would it be inclined to back ferocious repression in order to save that regime for its own sake. It is a quite different matter however when it comes to preventing Belarus from becoming a Western ally against Russia.

A glance at the map and the slightest knowledge of history should make the reasons for Russia’s stance obvious. The Belarusian border is only 300 miles from Moscow, and Belarus has been the principal route for Western invasions of Russia since the 16th century. It would be as if Canada were to threaten to join an anti-American military alliance.
The Russian government has made clear this is an absolute red line, with the clear implication that, in the last resort, Russia is willing to resort to armed force to prevent Belarus following Ukraine into military, economic and geopolitical dependence on the West. And if Russia does intervene militarily, it won’t be possible for Moscow to break off bits of Belarus, as in the case of Ukraine in 2014. Belarusian political geography does not permit this. The Russian army would have to occupy the whole of Belarus, and in the process march right up to the borders of NATO countries Lithuania and Poland..

The result would be a new and immense crisis between Russia and the West, probably involving the redeployment of very considerable numbers of U.S. troops to Europe and the complete economic isolation of Russia from the West. Such a crisis would also involve a greatly increased possibility of accidental clashes and collisions between Russian and NATO aircraft and ships. None of this would remotely serve Washington’s interests, let alone of the American middle class to whom the Biden administration has ostensibly dedicated its foreign policy…

Read full article here.

Putin’s Notions of Russian Spiritual and Moral Values Explained: An Interview with Nicolai Petro

Center on National Security, 5/13/21

Vital Interests: Nicolai, thanks for joining us today on the Vital Interests forum. We have had several conversations on this forum dealing with Russia but it would be good to delve into this topic some more. You’re a perfect person to talk to having just come back from Europe where you spent time in Ukraine and Italy and can provide us with fresh insights. 

Recently President Putin gave his annual state of the nation address to the Russian Federal Assembly. He talked about the spiritual and moral values which sustain Russia and distinguish it from other nations which were forgetting about these essential values. This struck me as an interesting statement by Putin and worth exploring. From your informed perspective what are the spiritual and moral values that Putin is referring to that define Russian society today?

Nicolai Petro: Since 2013 Putin has focused particular attention on Russia’s heritage as a multicultural nation. In his September 19, 2013 speech at the Valdai Conference he emphasized multiculturalism at a time when his counterparts in the West were disavowing it. He later made a distinction between multiculturalism and pluriculturalism, defining Russia as a pluricultural society. 

The distinction as I understand it is that multiculturalism encourages individual cultural self identification, whereas pluriculturalism emphasizes the need for cultural collectives to retain their cultural identities within the larger community. To make the distinction clear to your readers, the United States would be an example of a multicultural society. The European Union, by contrast would be an example of the pluricultural society because it says, “Look you Catalonians, you Corsicans, you Welsh – you have an identity that should be encouraged and recognized as a positive social value even though you don’t have statehood.” The distinction is apparent even in their respective mottos: “Out of Many, One” for the United States, and “United in Diversity” for the European Union…

Read full interview here.

Quincy Institute Debate – NATO Expansion: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone?

The Ukrainian government has issued a new request for an Action Plan leading to NATO membership, even as the situation on the ground between Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine has deteriorated badly, as have U.S.-Russian relations. This panel will examine the wisdom of further NATO expansion, ask what should be the correct role of NATO in defending U.S. and European security, and whether NATO ambitions and America’s military role in Europe need to be scaled back. 

The discussion took place on Tuesday, May 11th and featured former U.S. Ambassador Jack F. Matlock, former British Ambassador Sir Rodric Quentin Braithwaite, and author and former U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski. Quincy Institute Senior Research Fellow Anatol Lieven moderated.

Krishen Mehta: Sanctions and Forever Wars

By Krishen Mehta, American Committee for US-Russia Accord, 5/4/21

…What do we see around us today? The US has sanctions against over 30 countries, close to one-third of the world’s population. When the pandemic started in early 2020, our Government tried to prevent Iran from buying respirator masks from overseas, and also thermal imaging equipment that could detect the virus in the lungs. We vetoed the $ 5 Billion emergency loan that Iran had requested from the IMF to buy equipment and vaccines from the foreign market. Venezuela  has a program called CLAP, which is a local food distribution program to six million families every two weeks or so, providing essential supplies such as food, medicine, wheat, rice, and other staples. The US has has been trying repeatedly to disrupt this important program as a way to hurt the government of Nicolas Maduro. With each family receiving these packets under the CLAP having four members, this program supports about 24 million families, out of a total population of 28 million in Venezuela. But our sanctions may make this program impossible to continue. Is this the US at its best? The Caesar Sanctions against Syria are causing a tremendous humanitarian crisis in that country. 80% of the population has now fallen below the poverty line as a result of the Sanctions. From a foreign policy perspective sanctions appear to be an important part of our tool-kit, irrespective of the humanitarian crisis that it causes. James Jeffreys, our senior diplomat there for many years, has said that the purpose of the sanctions is to turn Syria into a quagmire for Russia and Iran. But there is no recognition of the humanitarian crisis that has been caused for ordinary Syrian people. We occupy Syrian oil fields to prevent the country from having financial resources for its recovery, and we occupy its fertile agricultural land to prevent them from accessing food. Is this America at its best?

Let us turn to Russia. On April 15 the US announced sanctions against Russian Government Debt for so-called interference in the 2020 elections and for cyber attacks. Partly as a result of these sanctions, on April 27th, the Russian Central Bank announced that interest rates would increase from 4.5% to 5%. This is playing with fire. While the Russian Sovereign debt is only about $ 260 Billion, imagine if the situation was reversed. The US has its national debt close to $ 26 Trillion, of which over 30% is held by foreign countries. What if China, Japan, India, Brazil, Russia, and other countries refused to renew their debt or decided to sell? There could be massive rise in interest rates, bankruptcies, unemployment, and a dramatic weakening of the US dollar. The US economy could mirror a depression level economy if all countries pulled out. If we do not want this for ourselves, why do we want it for other countries? The US has had sanctions against Russia for a number of reasons, and many of them emanate from the Ukrainian conflict in 2014. The Russian economy is only about 8% of the US economy, at $ 1.7 Trillion compared to our $ 21 Trillion economy, and yet we want to hurt them further. Russia has three main sources of revenue, and we have sanctions on all of them: their oil and gas sector, their arms export industry, and the financial sector that keeps the economy going. The opportunity that young people have to start businesses, to borrow money, to take risks, is tied in part to their financial sector and now even that is under massive strain due to sanctions. Is this truly what the American people want?

Read full remarks here.

VIDEO: The Committee for the Republic’s Annual Russia Salon

This Russia salon was led by Katrina vanden Heuvel and featured ACURA Board Members addressing a wide range of topics: Nicolai Petro on Ukraine; Cynthia Lazaroff on the Nuclear Peril; Krishen Mehta on our Sanctions Addiction;  David Speedie on Russia and China; with thoughtful closing remarks by Ambassador Jack Matlock. The event also featured questions and comments from the Committee’s John Henry, Chas Freeman and Bruce Fein.

Especially insightful comments from Nicolai Petro, retired ambassador Jack Matlock and Chas Freeman.