Some of you who read this blog must wonder why I’m so tirelessly interested in this man – so fixated on Putin particularly.
Two reasons, one somewhat personal, the other purely professional. The first is because my Master’s degree was in Russian and East European Studies – and I’ve never lost interest. The second is because Vladimir Putin is only the most recent in a long, long, long line of Russian autocrats – but he is the first to be tested in the 21st century. He is the first Russian leader to lead in a time during which, as I argue, leaders generally are getting weaker and followers stronger. Putin, moreover, is leader not of some minor nation, some national backwater, but of a major nation, with roots that are as long and strong in the West as they are in the East.
What we have had in Russia during the time of Putin – now well over a decade in duration – is an ongoing tension: between the old Russia on the one hand, and the new one on the other. This new Russia is not altogether democratic as opposed to autocratic. But increasingly it is filled with the young and and the restless (mainly middle class), who refuse to go gently, who refuse to bestow on Putin whatever it is he wants whenever he wants it. Put differently, in Russia, more than in any other country in the world, there is a palpable tension between the old leadership model and the new. On the one hand is Putin, who constantly testing the limits of his authority, pulling back only when he’s worried he’s gone too far. On the other hand is a potentially powerful minority of Russians who intermittently at least seem to be seriously fed up.
To be sure, Putin is not Stalin. Putin does not, does not generally dare terrorize his enemies by eliminating them. Nevertheless he is ruthless: he does not brook dissent unless he thinks he must.
The most famous of his opponents is a man about whom I’ve written before: Alexei Navalny. Navalny has been a thorn in Putin’s side for years: he has been Putin’s best known. most persistent, and, most intrepid critic, using new media and old persistently to poke at the Kremlin.
Just a few days ago it seemed Putin had finally got his man. Navalny was sentenced to a five-year term in prison, ostensibly for embezzlement. But guess what! Less than 24 hours after his conviction Navalny was set free! He was free at least temporarily, at least pending an appeal.
This raises the question of why? Why was Navalny released just when it seemed Putin had him where he wanted him, locked away long years? The answer is easy. No sooner was the verdict declared than all hell broke loose in Moscow. There was opprobrium from abroad, of course. Much more importantly though, was protest, large public protests, at home.
It’s important to understand that Navalny’s release in the immediate aftermath of his conviction is virtually unprecedented. It’s obvious then what happened: Putin and his henchmen ran scared. They got scared that the thousands who took to the streets to protest against Nalalny’s extended sentence represented a threat, a threat to the authorities themselves. Recent history has shown full well what can happen when an initially small group grows in size and in the level of its outrage – it spell big trouble, particularly for those in positions of power.
What happens to Navalny down the line is unclear. He says he’s running for political office, for mayor of Moscow. So either one of two scenarios is possible. The first is he ends up being put away, locked away for years to come. The second is he is allowed to go free, to continue his remarkably bold assault on Russia’s political system – and on the man who has come to personify it.