The sentencing of the Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny leaves the country’s opposition without its most effective leader. While the protest momentum will likely fade amid limited prospects to achieve political change and repressive measures used by authorities, it could reemerge on a bigger scale after the State Duma election in September. The Kremlin will likely respond by further curtailing space for political or civic opposition, along with the traditional reliance on propaganda in state-run media and occasional populist spending measures.
On 2 February, the Moscow’s Simonovsky court replaced the suspended sentence for Navalny with two-years and eight months’ prison time for violating parole requirements in an alleged corruption case dating back to 2014. The ruling has triggered another round of protests in Moscow and St Petersburg, which have been put down violently by government security forces and resulted in hundreds of arrests.
Navalny’s sentencing leaves the country’s already weak and fragmented opposition without its most potent leader. While his Anti-Corruption Foundation continued to operate in recent months, it will likely be subject to new restrictions from authorities. Some of his associates are already facing charges, while others have been operating from abroad.
While the Kremlin tries to shake off any comparisons of recent protests to events in Belarus following the August presidential election, recent events revealed some obvious parallels: in both countries the general public is increasingly frustrated with authoritarian regimes in power for over two decades, while their security forces use similar heavy-handed tactics to suppress public protests and arrest political opponents. The extension of this parallel raises a question whether Navalny’s wife Yulia could emerge as a new opposition leader following the footsteps of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Belarus, although the Kremlin will likely be careful to prevent this.
The Navlanys’ return to Russia once again exposed the nature of President Vladimir Putin’s regime. However, the scale of protests was still considerably smaller compared to those in Belarus, which in fact have not brought about any changes in Minsk to date. In Russia too, few prospects of political change at the top – along with the repressive response by security forces – will likely lead to the eventual demise of protests, if the Navalny team chooses to continue them. However, another potentially bigger wave of demonstrations could arise after the September vote.
Multiple crises during the past 12 months have pushed Putin’s approval ratings to multi-year lows and weakened his image at home and abroad. The Kremlin’s response to mounting challenges have been (and will likely remain) twofold: first, it will maintain pressure on civic activists and journalists through intimidation, administrative fines or legal action. A flurry of new legislation passed recently by parliament provides additional tools for censoring (social) media or labeling dissenting voices as “foreign agents”. In addition, the authorities will continue to rely on skillful messaging in state-run media offering their own interpretation of domestic and international affairs, usually accompanied by new social spending measures ahead of crucial votes.
Meanwhile, the widespread international condemnation of recent events in Russia has not translated into specific proposals for sanctions yet. As previously noted, individual sanctions (asset freezes and travel bans) targeting Russian state officials and potentially elites from the Putin’s “inner circle” appear as the most plausible response for now.