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The sidelining of a prominent Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny, will further weaken the divided and marginalized opposition. However, rising civic activism and leaderless protests in Russia’s regions are becoming a new headache for the Kremlin. The ruling United Russia (UR)’s attempt to retain control of the regional administrations in the 13 September elections could trigger protests in other regions beyond Khabarovsk.
Navalny’s alleged poisoning extends a long list of suspicious incidents involving Russian civic activists, opposition politicians and journalists during the two decades of President Vladimir Putin’s rule. Navalny himself has been subjected to multiple arrests, imprisonments, an acid attack, as well as a suspected poisoning attempt a year ago. The latest incident also coincides with a recent clampdown on the Kremlin’s critics after the July vote on constitutional amendments.
Navalny’s illness leaves (at least temporarily) Russia’s non-systemic opposition without its most potent leader. Despite lacking formal political representation at federal or regional levels, Navalny managed to significantly influence the country’s politics via social media campaigns, anti-corruption investigations, mass anti-government protests or a “smart voting” technique aimed to undermine electoral outcomes of the ruling UR party. Navalny’s associates will now be forced to regroup, likely making them less effective in the near-term.
While the recent clampdown on the opposition could provide a temporary respite for the Kremlin, strengthening local activism is becoming a new source of concern for the authorities. In recent years, protests have been springing up across the country over various local issues that directly affect the lives of citizens. For example, May 2019 saw mass demonstrations in Yekaterinburg against the construction of a cathedral in the city’s popular park, while in December 2019 thousands protested the planned construction of a landfill in the Arkhangelsk region. The most recent – and by far the largest – of such protests is taking place in Khabarovsk, Russian Far East. Triggered by the arrest of the region’s popular Governor Sergei Furgal (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) on 9 July, demonstrations have been continuing for more than six weeks now, attracting tens of thousands at their height. Importantly, the protests have sprung up spontaneously, without involvement of opposition parties, and promptly took on a wider anti-government sentiment. While such demonstrations have been mostly contained in their respective regions until now, rising public discontent with poor governance and deteriorating living standards could evolve into nationwide protests over time. This would be particularly worrying for the Kremlin amid Putin’s declining authority and ongoing leaderless demonstrations against the authoritarian regime in neighboring Belarus.
In this respect, the 13 September elections in several Russia’s federal subjects are an important signpost to watch. As in previous regional votes, multiple opposition candidates have faced obstacles to register for the vote, while extended voting procedures (due to Covid-19) may raise additional concerns about electoral transparency. Moreover, some of the regions holding gubernatorial elections – including Arkhangelsk, Irkutsk, or the Komi Republic – have a history of dissent and expressed only lukewarm support for the constitutional amendments initiated by Putin earlier this year.
Finally, the regional elections will test the ruling UR’s appeal ahead of the parliamentary election scheduled for September 2021. UR’s popularity is hitting multi-year lows in polls, which may lead to leadership changes before the general vote.