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Navalny and the Russians: It's complicated

How many will come next time? That is the question that Alexei Navalny's supporters are currently asking. The bar is set high for new protests next Sunday. Tens of thousands took to the streets across Russia on January 23 to demand the release of the imprisoned opposition politician. For some it is a lot, because the demos are not approved and the participants risk imprisonment. Concern about Corona is also likely to keep some away. Others, like Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, belittle the protest. "Few people have marched up. Many are voting for Putin," Peskov said on television.

More clicks, more demonstrators?

Since his return in mid-January from Germany, where Navalny received medical treatment after being poisoned in Russia, the 44-year-old seems to have electrified part of the Russian population. "After Navalny's poisoning, I understood that it no longer makes sense to sit around," 26-year-old Adam from Moscow told DW during the demonstration last Saturday. The 30-year-old Pawel, a lawyer, mainly brought the arbitrariness of the judiciary onto the street: "I don't care about Navalny. But how he is dealt with, the arbitrariness in the police station, that's unacceptable."

Alexei Navalny shortly before his arrest at Moscow airport

Navalny was arrested at Moscow airport in mid-January and subsequently sentenced to 30 days' pre-trial detention by a court in a police station. He is now waiting for a court decision to be made on February 2nd. A law enforcement agency wants to convert his previous suspended sentence into prison for economic charges.

When Navalny was already in custody, his Foundation against Corruption (Russian abbreviation FBK) published a video documentary about a palace on the Black Sea that was allegedly built for Putin and financed by oligarchs. The Kremlin chief denied this personally. The documentary was viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube, a record for such formats in Russian. With this, Navalny wants to fuel the protests. But whether more clicks will lead to more demonstrators on the streets is open. How much support does he really have?

The long breath of Alexei Navalny

Anyone looking for the answer to this question has to look back around ten years. In the winter of 2011/2012 tens of thousands of Russians protested, mainly in Moscow, for fair elections and against the return of the then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin. At the forefront - Alexej Navalny, a blogger who fought against corruption with his revelations. It was then that his rise to the number one opposition politician that many see in him today began.

Navalny showed staying power and changed his rhetoric. At first he was also controversial in opposition circles because of his nationalist and sometimes right-wing populist views. You no longer hear anti-migrant tones from him today.

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets on January 23. New protests are expected on January 31st

His only and so far greatest success as a politician was the mayoral election in Moscow in 2013. He got almost a third of the vote and came second. Since then, his legal path into politics has been blocked. His party was not registered and he is no longer allowed to run in elections because of economic crime convictions. His application for the presidency failed in 2018. Navalny sees the Kremlin behind it. But he used this choice to build a network. It is now paying off. In the province hundreds, sometimes thousands, take to the streets for his release. That is new.

A mixture of pity and distrust

Pollsters like Lev Gudkov, however, are skeptical as to whether Navalny can trigger a large protest movement. "The attitude towards him is complicated and depends on the age and the information channel," said the director of the renowned Moscow Levada Center in an interview with DW. "The youth who are active in social networks react much more strongly and empathetically to news about an attempted political murder."

Around 40 percent of young Russians believe in it. For older people in the province who depend on state television, it is only five percent. "Kremlin propaganda is at work there," said Gudkow. The poisoning of Navalny is denied or interpreted as a provocation of Western secret services. The opposition politician is always portrayed as a criminal in the state media.

Against this background, it is not surprising that in a poll by the Levada Center in November 2020, three months after his poisoning, only two percent of Russians wanted to vote for Navalny as a potential presidential candidate. This value has been stable for years.

Why many Russians are reluctant to protest

In his unveiling videos, often peppered with ironic youth language, Navalny appeals primarily to young Russians. But his messages do not have the strongest impact on students who like to share videos with and about him on TikTok, says Gudkow.

The pollster Lev Gudkov

"The younger ones watch his videos and remain passive. Those who already have life experience, people between the ages of 25 and 40, react," says the sociologist. Middle-class Russians, especially in the big cities, are linking the economic stagnation in Russia to Putin's policies, he said.

The Austrian Russia expert Gerhard Mangott from the University of Innsbruck sees it similarly. "Not everyone who was on the street on Saturday (January 23rd) demonstrated for Navalny, not all of the demonstrators would vote for Navalny in a presidential election, for example, but there were a large number of citizens who are frustrated with the economic situation Recession, the lack of recovery, the decline in real wages, political corruption, corruption in everyday life, ā€¯Mangott told DW.

Gudkov does not expect large masses of protests. On the one hand, the economic situation in Russia is still relatively good and no comparison, for example, with the neighboring republic of Belarus, where the demonstrations against the president have been going on for months. On the other hand, there is no willingness to make sacrifices - unlike Navalny himself, who returned to Russia despite the threat of arrest. "Admiration for Navalny will increase," says Gudkov. "This is mixed with the feeling that he may be something special," a warrior ", but we are not. We admire him, but would not follow him." That is conformism, a legacy of the Soviet era.