On January 23, tens of thousands of people gathered across Russia to support the release of activist Alexey Navalny, who returned to Russia on January 17, five months after being poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade chemical weapon. Upon landing, Navalny was immediately arrested and is currently in a Moscow prison, which has been detained for an extended period on highly dubious criminal charges.
But Navalny does not sit idle. Shortly after his arrest, his anti-corruption foundation released a video allegedly showing the sprawling Black Sea Palace of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Immediately beforehand, the Anti-Corruption Foundation published a list of the eight best Russian nationals whom the West should sanction if it wants to combat the stinginess of Putin’s circle. The widespread and overt corruption of Putin and other Russian elites, the constant perversion of justice and the stagnating standard of living have made large parts of the Russian public dissatisfied with the regime, hence the massive participation in demonstrations.
But don’t expect a street revolution or the end of Putinism anytime soon. Navalny’s actions, while brave and sufficient to further reduce the popularity of Putin and the ruling United Russia party, have little or no chance of overturning the current regime immediately. The reason for this is that while Navalny, while popular with a significant number of Russians and capable of mobilizing large street protests, has little support from political and business elites at the local, regional or national level. Many of these elites are, in fact, the people who were the primary target of Navalny’s crusade against corruption.
If Navalny is to take control of the country through a street revolution, he needs allies in elite circles. Russian history and the successful “color revolutions” in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine illustrate this clearly. Consider the two most recent examples of Russia’s neighbors: the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine and the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. In both cases, while street protests played a major role in pressuring regime change, the protesters were fueled by the internal weakness of the regimes they faced.
The revolution in Georgia was the culmination of a multi-year erosion of the seizure of power by then President Eduard Shevardnadze. Many key members of the Party of the Union of Citizens of Georgia in Shevardnadze turned to the opposition, most notably Mikhail Saakashvili, the Shevardnadze Justice Minister who took the lead. Protesters storm the Georgian parliament. There was a similar dynamic in Ukraine, in which the takeover of President Viktor Yanukovych, which was already weak due to political divisions in the Ukrainian elite, collapsed under public pressure.
Neither Shevardnadze nor Yanukovych had a deep reserve of security forces. As soon as the internal security battalions, which they had set up specifically to combat demonstrations, were overrun or fled, the time had come. The military of both nations at the time were dysfunctional conscription affairs that had been eroded by decades of corruption. Neither the generals nor the foot soldiers had any interest in getting involved in politics. They calculated correctly because it turned out that a power shift would do little to influence them directly.
Russia and the Putin regime are a completely different animal. The Russian term for political power is vlast and implies the authorities as well as the power itself. The taming takes place through the control of the organs of the Russian state, in particular the so-called “power ministries”: the interior, military and security services. Gaining control of these ministries, as well as the bureaucracy and political system, comes through the use of the whips and carrots that Russian rulers have used since the time of the Tsars to ensure compliance and loyalty.
In Putin’s Russia, those oligarchs who recognized Putin’s supremacy could remain in the structure of power and profit. Those who continued to challenge Putin, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were persecuted by agents of the bureaucracy. This state-sanctioned self-enrichment and abuse of power take place at all levels of government and fuel the corruption that Navalny claims he is fighting against.
While there have been many revolutions in Russia, each one came in part because the regime’s influence on these power institutions had already waned. The 1905 revolution, sparked by Russia’s shocking defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, consisted of a series of mass protests, workers’ strikes, and armed uprisings, all of which were brutally suppressed but created enough pressure to keep Tsar Nicholas II from implementing convince of reforms including the granting of a constitution and the establishment of a parliament. Of course, the gains were short-lived as the Tsar regained full control in the 1907 counterrevolution, leaving the new parliament as a futile appendix with little or no power.
What Nicholas II saved in 1905 was the consistent loyalty of the power ministries: his secret police, the military and his personal security reserve in the form of the Cossacks. The same forces failed to save the tsar in 1917 when Bolshevik revolutionaries overthrew the Russian Empire and the tsars. The main difference was that three years of war had decimated not only the economy but also the military, resulting in widespread mutinies. The end of the tsars had taken nearly 100 years of failed attempts, from the Decembrist revolt of 1825 to the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 to the Potemkin mutiny in 1905, until the 1917 revolution finally demolished the entire structure.
The recent change of the Russian regime from the Soviet Union to the modern Russian state has once again required a conspiracy of factors working in favor of the opposition. The main leader of the Russian opposition, Boris Yeltsin, like Navalny, played the populist card well, complaining loudly and always in the range of a microphone about bottlenecks, corruption and inefficiency.
But Yeltsin’s timing and tactics were very different from Navalny’s. Navalny has always been a political outsider – which gives him his credibility. Yeltsin, on the other hand, was a political insider like Saakashvili, who also likes his later Georgian counterpart, which has defected to the opposition. Yeltsin had started his career as a construction foreman in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), where one of his most prestigious accomplishments was overseeing the demolition of the house where Nicholas II and his family were slaughtered. Yeltsin used his political skills to climb the ranks of the party until he became a member of the Politburo, the highest political body in the Soviet Union, established by another reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Yeltsin and Gorbachev fell out, and Gorbachev had kicked Yeltsin out of the Politburo before he could resign. Just two years later, in 1989, Gorbachev held free and fair elections, and Yeltsin was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies, where, after considerable efforts, he was able to form a coalition of support between nationalists and democrats that dominated the population’s unwieldy bodies and see themselves elected as chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin then used his position to gradually undermine Gorbachev, who was trying to save the Soviet Union through a series of reforms.
Ultimately, Yeltsin positioned himself as President of the Russian Republic within the Soviet Union and first among the other presidents at the republican level. When the canceled coup took place in August 1991, Yeltsin became one of the greatest faces of the resistance. The coup plotters, the state committee for the state of emergency, appeared to be in control of the state apparatus, but they had no will to use it. Troops were in Moscow, but no orders came: no orders to disperse the demonstrators and no orders to storm the government offices and arrest Yeltsin. (He accidentally escaped arrest at the beginning of the coup.) The coup plotters did not want a bloodbath and eventually gave in. Two years later, Yeltsin used many of the same units to put down an insurrection against his own authority.
If we look at the conditions that facilitated previous regime changes in Russia and its neighbors and compare them to the current situation, it is not a good sign of Navalny’s prospects. Putin has chaired a corrupt and brutal regime, but it has also enabled him to fully consolidate control over the Russian state organs. Putin is in a far safer position than Yeltsin has ever been before: his political party dominates government at all levels, and the endemic corruption in Russia means private businesses large and small continue to rely on the goodwill of Putin’s leading political machine, their employers To put pressure on workers to stay out of politics. While Russia may be going through a constitutional change in preparation for the time Putin will give up power, it is a transition that ensures that those already in Putin’s circle maintain their positions and defend their interests.
Navalny’s protests are not entirely in vain. His actions will undermine an already unpopular regime facing parliamentary elections in September and will continue to mobilize a new generation of young Russians who only knew Putin and now imagine a world without him. Perhaps a new opposition will gradually grow from these seeds. However, this will take years and there is no color revolution ahead.
The current regime is too resilient, protected by layers of security forces and coordinated interests. The protesters will show up en masse for days, possibly weeks, but they will be intimidated and brutalized by the police. If the police are somehow unable to deal with the crowd, the National Guard is called in and Putin answers directly. In the unlikely event that the National Guard also needs support, the army can still be called up. Unlike their Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts, the increasingly professional Russian army has put down rebellions in the past and will most likely obey any orders given to it. Unless essential persons within the current regime turn to the Navalny cause, the possibility of a street protest alone that will provoke a change of government is doubtful. The day may come when the conditions for regime change are ripe, but there is still no sign that the time has come.