MOSCOW – Protests in Russia over the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny are threatening to escalate into a larger anti-Kremlin movement, driven by frustration with falling living standards and shrinking political freedoms as President Vladimir Putin consolidates his long-term detention.
The Russian leader has for years benefited from the popularity generated by his aggressive foreign policy, which has seen Moscow oppose the West with hacker attacks and military interventions in Ukraine and the Middle East and re-establish itself on the world stage since its fall under Boris Yeltsin in 90s.
But protests over the weekend over Mr Navalny’s detention on his return to Russia after recovering from a poison attack threatened to turn into a wider movement. Dissatisfaction is now turning into anger after a court ordered Mr Navalny to be held in pre-trial detention for 30 days, fueled by chronic corruption, the pain of last year̵
“We have a real problem with corruption, on the one hand, and poverty, on the other,” said Evgenia Ragozina, a 28-year-old lawyer who battled temperatures of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit to join a rally in Siberia. Tyumen. She added that Mr Navalny’s arrest was just a trigger.
“People are more afraid of the fact that they do not see a decent future for themselves,” she said. “That is why I will be [protesting] until the end of Putin’s political regime. “
Saturday’s rallies were among the biggest manifestations of dissent across the country in recent years, with a total of more than 100,000 people in attendance, according to local media estimates. Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Friday, removing some 3,700 people by day, more than ever since a wave of anti-Kremlin protests rocked Russia in 2011 and 2012.
Organizers say they plan more demonstrations for Sunday, as Mr Putin lays the groundwork to stay in power for years to come. Last year, the Russians approved a series of constitutional changes initiated by the Kremlin that would allow it to stay until 2036, in a vote largely organized as a show of support for the leader.
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Mr Navalny became a symbol of the protests after being detained on his return from Germany, where he was recovering from a poisoning attack in Siberia in the summer. Last weekend’s rallies, in which protesters clashed with police and sniffed them with snowballs, included many of his followers.
But the crowds also include a broader coalition of middle-aged and middle-class Russians. Surveys among protesters in Moscow on Saturday found that more than 40% were protesting for the first time. The protests are taking place against a backdrop of rising poverty levels and rising inflation caused by a 20% drop in the value of the ruble last year. Many Russians say the government has also not done enough to alleviate the impact of the pandemic.
Mr Putin is not in immediate political danger. Many Russians still consider him indispensable, and his approval rating was 65 percent in November, according to independent sociologist Levada. He also has Russia’s security forces and judiciary, which gives him ample opportunity to wait for protests, as did his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, in the disputed elections in the summer.
But Mr Navalny and his team continue to undermine Mr Putin’s authority with the large online audience he has built by releasing videos accusing Kremlin-linked officials of corruption. In the days before the protest, they released another video, this time with a lavish palace with a casino and an indoor ice hockey rink, which was allegedly built for Mr Putin on the Black Sea coast. Unusually, Mr Putin spoke on Monday, denying any knowledge of who owned the building and calling the allegations lies. He usually tries to belittle Mr Navalny, avoid using his name or ignoring his accusations.
The video has already garnered more than 90 million views on YouTube and has struck many Russians who have been heavily drawn to stories about the leader’s wealth.
“Moods in society are changing,” said Konstantin Kalachev, a Moscow-based political analyst who said there was a wide range of problems that drive people on the streets. “The reason for the protest is different for each protester.”
The Kremlin’s initial response appears to be to designate Mr Navalny as an agent for the United States and its allies. On Tuesday, the head of Russia’s powerful security council said the West needed Mr Navalny to destabilize Russia.
Mr Putin has long enjoyed a confrontation with the West that has prompted Western sanctions in response to alleged hacking attacks and attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election, which Mr Putin denies. Last year, Russian lawmakers passed a law designating political or election groups that receive funds from abroad as foreign agents, subjecting them to restrictions.
However, political analysts speculate that Mr Putin and his allies are still looking for a strategy beyond mass arrests to contain the swollen protests, and will likely know how such rallies forced them to release Mr Navalny after his arrest. in 2013.
“The Kremlin has no strategy or even tactics to respond to, except the line of force,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a Russian domestic policy expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
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