Ilya Budraitskis, Moscow-based historian, political writer, and co-author of the Political Diary podcast
Alexei Navalny’s arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, minutes after his return to Russia, was not only the expected, but also the only possible reaction of the Russian authorities. At the beginning of this year, after the summer Constitutional amendments opened up the possibility of Putin’s unlimited personal power, his regime had clearly entered a new phase: a virtually open dictatorship, based not on passive support from below but on repressive power. In this new configuration, there is no place either for the marginalized liberal opposition or for the systemic ” managed democracy” parties, which have kept United Russia’s absolute monopoly in check and have created limited opportunities for expressing electoral discontent. The attempted assassination of Navalny by the Russian security apparatus last August fits perfectly into this picture. From the perspective of the authorities, the main threat posed by Navalny is the tactic of “smart voting”– the accumulation of all the protest votes by the candidate who stands the best chance of defeating United Russia’s nominees. In a situation where support for the ruling party is rapidly declining (currently it is no more than 30%), the “smart voting” threatens the approved scenario for the parliamentary elections scheduled for September of this year and, in the long run, the triumphant re-election of Putin himself to a new term.
Navalny’s bold and precise populist strategy is in fact aimed at creating a protest coalition, with an important place reserved for the representatives of the system parties (above all, the Communists), who will refuse to play by the Kremlin’s rules and are able to conduct lively and offensive electoral campaigns. A key element of this strategy is Navalny’s rhetoric, in which the issues of poverty and social inequality have taken the place of liberal-democratic values. The high-profile anti-corruption investigations that have earned him popularity have an emotional impact on a huge audience (for example, his latest film about Putin’s palace, costing 100 billion roubles, was viewed over 50 million times by Friday), since they directly indicate the extreme stratification of Russian society. In an environment of openly falsified elections and unprecedented police pressure, electoral protest can only have an effect if it is supported by a mass non-parliamentary street movement. And only such a movement can determine Navalny’s personal fate today — if hundreds of thousands across the country do not stand up for his immediate release in the coming weeks, he will surely face a long prison term.
In my view, participating in such a movement — with our own program and demands — is today the only chance for the Russian left. Moreover, it is the left that can most coherently express the sentiments that are increasingly pushing people to active protest: social inequality, the degradation of the social sphere (especially health care, which became dramatically apparent during the pandemic), police violence, and the absence of basic democratic (especially labor) rights.