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Navalny has exposed the weakness of the Putin regime

The Russian president’s brutal intolerance of dissent is a sign of his diminished authority.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics World

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Russia appears to be a nation in which the people have lost their voice.

There is a presidential election next month, but no one seriously doubts the outcome. After 24 years in power, Vladimir Putin will almost certainly be crowned president of Russia once again. Indeed, the only official challenger, ineffectual anti-war candidate Boris Nadezhdin, has already been barred from the ballot paper. And last week, Alexei Navalny, arguably the most prominent of Putin’s domestic political opponents, was found dead in a prison colony in the Arctic Yamalo-Nenets region of Russia. His widow has accused the Russian government of poisoning him with a nerve agent.

Navalny’s death is undoubtedly hugely significant. Many commentators have concluded that the passing of this courageous freedom fighter represents the end of political dissent in Russia. There is an almost fatalistic view that it is now impossible to challenge Putin politically.

Such pessimism is understandable. In recent years, there has certainly been a significant clampdown on political protest and activism. This has only intensified since the start of the war in Ukraine. The Russian state, armed with new post-invasion laws, now ruthlessly suppresses any form of dissent. Many of the more vociferous opponents of Putin’s regime, who were tolerated to a certain extent before, have now been given long prison sentences.

At first glance, Putin’s heavy-handed authoritarianism seems unnecessary. He does not face any serious challenge to his rule. After all, a mixture of fear, fatalism and apathy has long gripped Russian public life, as millions retreat away from politics into the relative safety of their private existences. According to some accounts, the Putin regime has even succeeded in establishing a degree of patriotic consensus around the pursuit of the war in Ukraine, with surveys consistently showing high levels of domestic support for the invasion.

However, if you dig a little deeper, the reasons for Putin’s uncompromising authoritarianism soon become clear. Yes, he controls the repressive machinery of the state, dominates the media and controls the Russian oligarchy. But after nearly a quarter of a century in power, Putin lacks legitimacy and therefore genuine authority. His is a powerful regime built on a fragile foundation.

It is precisely because Putin senses his own lack of authority that he is so sensitive to every manifestation of dissent. This was illustrated last summer when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, launched a half-hearted uprising.

Prigozhin did not even directly defy Putin. He insisted that his motive for taking action was to challenge Russia’s poor military leadership, which he blamed for the deaths of thousands of soldiers in Ukraine. Yet by publicly calling into question Russian army chiefs, Prigozhin was still calling into question Putin’s authority. The very fact that Prigozhin was able to take control of some military facilities, with so little resistance, showed that Putin lacked the loyalty and affection of the army rank and file.

Prigozhin backed down within hours of mounting a challenge to Putin’s authority. But a couple of months later, he paid the price for exposing the Russian state as a Potemkin Village. The plane crash that killed Prigozhin was meant to remind the people of Russia that Putin will not tolerate any challenge to his rule.

But fear is not enough to sustain a regime. Navalny understood this well enough. He believed that through his uncompromising activism, his ‘be scared of nothing’ message, he could inspire others to challenge Putin. He knew that dissent requires courage and that, sooner or later, the Russian people would prevail over Putin’s authoritarianism. He was convinced that it was only a matter of time before Russians would find their voice.

In the 2022 documentary film, Navalny, he was asked what his death would mean. He said that ‘if they decide to kill me it means that we are incredibly strong’, before adding: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. So don’t do nothing.’

Alexei Navalny knew that the Russian state’s reliance on assassinating opponents was a sign of its weakness. But only time will tell whether such acts of tremendous individual courage are enough to seriously challenge the Putin regime.

Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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