During the month of January, Russia saw large-scale protests erupt throughout its cities in response to Alexey Navalny’s arrest. Navalny, one of Putin’s most prominent critics, was detained on January 17th after landing in Moscow. His long-standing history as a Kremlin opponent includes his Anti-Corruption Foundation and leadership of Russia of the Future party. In 2018, Navalny wanted to run for President, yet was banned from doing so by Russia’s central election committee because of his involvement in an embezzlement case, although it is highly suspected that his political views were the actual cause. When he was arrested, Navalny had just returned to Russia from Germany, where he spent several months recovering from being poisoned. While recovering, Navalny used the assistance of journalists and an organization on chemical weapons oversight to find out what had happened to him. Novichok, a widely recognized agent, previously developed by the Soviet Union, was discovered as the toxic substance that led to his poisoning. The investigations concluded that the Russian government was responsible for what had happened to Navalny. Upon returning to Russia, Navalny was arrested because he avoided regular inspections with authorities which he had to undergo after his fraud case sentence in 2014. He was furthermore sentenced to two years and eight months in prison. He asserted, however, that the charges and the arrest were politically motivated.
More recently, Navalny was moved to a Russian prison, which he described to be very similar to a concentration camp. In an instagram post, he mentioned being monitored at all times and observed an atmosphere of tension around other prisoners, suggesting that they have been physically abused in the past. He further commented that the situation reminded him of George Orwell’s world in 1984.
Putin has been known for centralizing power and obstructing opposition throughout his presidencies. In addition to using resources that come with the office in order to weaken the campaigns of other potential candidates, Russia’s leadership has also been known to dismiss other contenders to government positions over technicalities. Over the years, the country has transitioned to a more authoritarian system, as Putin continued to extend his grasp on power. As such, it was of no surprise that the authorities have tried to silence Navalny during the course of his political career.
Navalny’s detainment triggered a series of protests beginning on January 23rd, with thousands of people gathering in over 100 Russian cities to express their frustration towards the Russian government. While the protests initiated because of Navalny’s arrest, they soon gained momentum as people joined to indicate their general disapproval over Putin’s grip on power, the economic issues exacerbated by the pandemic along with growing censorship. In addition, people’s frustrations over Putin’s tenure were heightened as Navalny recently uncovered “Putin’s Palace”, a private residence allegedly owned by the President and likely funded by illegal means. The culmination of public distrust and anger led to mass demonstrations on consecutive weekends, prompting violent responses from Russian police and other government forces. After the detainment of over 10,000 people, Navalny’s team urged the protestors to regroup and wait, rather than be subjected to further arrests and police brutality. They will likely be preparing for further demonstrations before the Parliamentary elections in September.
While similar protests have occurred under Putin’s leadership and often failed to bring about change, the “January conflict” has attracted international disapproval of Navalny’s arrest and subsequent aggressive treatment of the protestors. Navalny’s arrest was an obvious strategy to eliminate the threat he posed to Putin’s regime. In response to the events, Western states issued statements criticizing the actions of the Russian government, with some considering the implementation of economic sanctions against Russian officials.
The U.S. State Department published a press statement on January 23rd, condemning the treatment of the protestors, which stated:
“We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights and for the immediate and unconditional release of Aleksey Navalny. We urge Russia to fully cooperate with the international community’s investigation into the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny and credibly explain the use of a chemical weapon on its soil. The United States will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners in defense of human rights – whether in Russia or wherever they come under threat.”
It has yet to be seen whether the United States will act as stated and take concrete actions against the Russian leaders responsible for the treatment of both Navalny and the protestors. If the United States were to become more heavily involved, the Kremlin may have an incentive for taking a step back to avoid escalating tensions between the two countries. Other leaders, such as the French foreign minister, the British foreign secretary, and the Estonian foreign minister also expressed their objections to the violations of international human rights and intent to interfere.
The foreign ministers of the European Union discussed potential sanctions against Russia in January, calling for further sanctions on the Russian officials responsible for the arrests. The Polish government also organized a call with members from the United States, Canada, Britain, and Ukraine in regards to implementing consequences to the arrests. After the Russian government expelled three European diplomats for participating in the protests, Germany, Sweden, and Poland retaliated by expelling Russian diplomats from their countries.
Pressure from the international community will hopefully push Russia’s government to address the increasing corruption. The disregard for human rights by the regime has highlighted the growing issues with Putin’s extended control over the country and the need for adjustments to the present leadership and procedures. Over the years, Russia has become even more authoritarian, restricting personal freedoms while widening the economic gap amongst its population. While the recent protests are unlikely to result in substantial changes, they have brought more attention to the issues within Putin’s government. As other countries decide on how to react, their actions may force the Kremlin to adjust its treatment of human rights and decrease the suppression of opposition groups.