It’s not about Putin. It’s not about Navalnyi. It’s not about the ruble or the oil price or the cost of war in Ukraine. It’s not about causes and effects. Causes require mechanisms to create effects, iron laws of physics and chemistry, the immutable workings of atoms and molecules and butterflies. There are no butterflies right now in Russia.
The fact that Navalnyi remains free while his brother goes to jail is, of course, a greater injustice than any had imagined: a man made to watch his younger brother suffer, for his own political ‘transgressions’. Navalnyi, certainly, knew what he was getting himself into when he took on Putin, but he would not have imagined this. And that’s the problem. As Ella Paneyakh writes, cogently and importantly, the verdict represents the final evisceration of whatever was left of the institution of law in Russia.
If Ella is right – and she certainly is – the real victims of the sentencing of Oleg Navalnyi are Russia’s citizens, who now, almost officially, live in a state of lawlessness. Those same citizens are, of course, also the victims of the scorched-earth policies the Kremlin has perpetrated against its own economy and currency, a fact that will sink in as double-digit inflation next year emaciates savings already almost halved in dollar terms. On top of a recession. And a global conflict no ordinary Russian asked for.
So, something in the range of 35,000 Russians came out to Manezh Square to protest the Navalnyi verdict. And then they went home – a few hundred making a brief stop in various police stations along the way – save for 20-30, who seem set to stay on indefinitely. Earlier this week, maybe 1,500 doctors, teachers and sympathizers briefly blocked Tverskaya ulitsa, the latest in a string of protests against healthcare and education cuts. And untold thousands have spent recent weeks tilting against the windmills of hapless bank tellers and cashless ATMs.
Referring to the few dozen die-hard activists still out on Manezh Square at the time I wrote this, a protest Twitter account noted that the Euromaidan also began with a handful of protesters who refused to go home. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not true: the Euromaidan began with the brutal beating of a handful of protesters who refused to go home. That’s what set in motion the forces of nature that brought down Yanukovych, extending himself as ‘cause’ through the mechanism of a policeman’s baton and creating the ‘effect’ of righteous rage. The Kremlin is, most likely, smart enough to avoid the same mistake, and no one in their right mind should wish otherwise.
This is, as Mark Galeotti writes, not over yet. But those hoping for rapid change will be disappointed. As I’ve written before, the Kremlin’s increasingly hard line is a reaction to the growing power of a society that is gradually learning to stand up for itself. None of this –not the rushed verdict, not even the trial itself – would have happened if the Kremlin didn’t take the potential and power of protest seriously.
The problem for the moment, though, is that Putin and his advisers take protest more seriously than the protesters themselves do. And it’s no surprise: they don’t have to look far to see how quickly unrest can unsettle a regime. And the protesters know that, too. But at the end of the day, they don’t truly believe that their protest will prevail. Not now. Not yet.
What remains is for ordinary Russians to take the power of politics seriously. That Russians do not rise up against a regime that disenfranchises, impoverishes and belittles them is not so much a sign of quiescence as it is a sign of despair: despair that a government behind those red brick walls will ever – can ever – serve the people. Without that belief, there’s little point in bringing down this regime, much to the activists’ dismay.
Putin, however, should take little comfort, for neither will the Russian public have much use for him, when they eventually decide that he is done.