Staunton, October 10 – The relative paucity of detentions in Moscow during the anti-Putin Navalny demonstrations last weekend, despite the much larger and more brutal actions of the authorities beyond the ring road, has generated a lively discussion as to why the Kremlin didn’t come down harder.
Two commentators, Yekatarina Vinokurova of Znak (znak.com/2017-10-09/myagkaya_reakciya_na_mitingi_novaya_taktika_ili_situativnaya_reakciya) and Dmitry Travin of St. Petersburg’s European University (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2017/10/08/1651541.html), provide some interesting suggestions.
Vinokurova suggests that the answer may have been as simple as timing: the Kremlin didn’t want to spoil Putin’s birthday – the foreign media undoubtedly would have linked those two events together -- or appear repressive when it was criticizing the Spanish police for their crackdown in Catalonia.
She then queries five Moscow analysts for their reaction. Political scientist Abbas Gallyamov says that the authorities may have reacted as they did because they saw that the latest demonstrations attracted far fewer people than earlier and thus felt that they were “winners” and could afford to be generous.
Aleksey Chesnyakov of the Center for Political Conjuncture agrees. This wasn’t a change in tactics. Rather it was specific to this day. What is disturbing, he continues, is that the authorities have such a limited number of instruments for reacting to any public manifestation, repression or non-repression.
Yevgeny Minchenko, head of the International Institute for Political Expertise, agrees that the Kremlin’s response reflected the smaller number of protests as well as problems within Navalny’s own command.
Aleksey Makarkin of the center for Political Technologies suggests that it was all a game: first the authorities threatened to come down hard and then they didn’t, leaving their opponents off balance. The fact that there was so much variance in the ways officials reacted shows that no common approach was planned in the Kremlin.
And Konstantin Kalachev of the Political Expertise Group said that the softer approach reflected an appreciation within the Kremlin that harsh measures would only lead to further radicalization and the growth of the opposition. Moreover, the calm response of the center reflected its “strength and confidence.”
Dmitry Travin puts the absence of a crackdown into a broader context. He says that if the authorities were really afraid of a challenge, they would have acted exactly the opposite to the way that they did, taking a hard line in Moscow and a softer one elsewhere. But the Kremlin showed its confidence that everything is under control.
Clearly, Putin doesn’t see Navalny as a competitor or a threat, Travin continues.
One cannot understand what happened, he suggests, unless one recognizes that the Kremlin is not a single thing but a collection of competing groups who make use of whatever they can to advance their interests. Navalny can be used by some because he threatens others or at least can be made to look that way, the economist says.
The Kremlin population is united in only one way: “the problem of personal enrichment is primary, and the problem of support for the regime is secondary.” Given that Navalny has only minimal impact on that goal, he can be allowed to function especially since he has proven incapable of mobilizing the population for something rather than just against corruption.
If it were otherwise, he would not have been sentenced to 20 days but perhaps to 20 years. But in the absence of specific goals, his protest will peter out just as others have over the last two decades. And one can conclude, Travin says, that Navalny’s position has been weakened by what occurred last Saturday.
“This doesn’t mean,” Travin says, “that meetings are senseless,” but they are meaningful more in an ethical than a political sense, as an affirmation of one’s right to take a position and to act. At some point that may grow into a political movement but not immediately, the commentator suggests.