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Bolotnaya Deja Vu: What Happens Next?

Will it be different this time? Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in court on March 30.
Will it be different this time? Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in court on March 30.

It was easy to get deja vu this past week.

Just like in 2011-12, there is a sense that something very important has happened and something important has changed.

Mass protests have caught Vladimir Putin's regime off guard and suddenly there's a sense that the Kremlin's aura of omnipotence has been pierced.

Suddenly there's a sense that Vladimir Putin's regime feels threatened. But there is also a sense that the regime is very dangerous when it feels threatened.

Because everybody knows how 2011-12 ended: with a harsh crackdown on dissent followed by a military adventure in Ukraine.

Aleksei Navalny unexpectedly managed to land a punch last weekend. And now we are awaiting the Kremlin's counterpunch.

So what happens next? Here are a few thoughts and possibilities:

1) Bolotnaya Redux: Crackdowns And 'Fifth Columns'

Apparently beating demonstrators with truncheons and arresting more than 1,000 people wasn't enough. Igor Zubov thinks it's time to get really tough.

The deputy interior minister told TASS that "if these provocations begin to happen more frequently, we'll put the whole expansive arsenal at our disposal into play."

The pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, meanwhile, suggested that police use water cannon, tear gas, stun grenades -- and even robocops -- to disperse future demonstrations

There is also renewed talk of bolstering "patriotic education" in schools and online patriotic campaigns targeting young people.

In addition to Navalny being handed a 15-day jail sentence over the protests, the Moscow offices of his anticorruption foundation have been raided by police and Federal Security Service agents.

And Putin himself weighed in on March 30, saying "those who act outside the law must be punished."

Russian state television is also busy setting the Kremlin's narrative, predictably claiming that tens of thousands of people took to the streets in scores of cities to protest corruption due to a Western plot to undermine Russia.

So the Kremlin appears to dusting off its greatest hits: repressive measures and allegations that protesters are fifth columnists.

It appears to be reviving the script it followed after the May 2012 protests on Bolotnaya Square on the eve of Putin's inauguration.

Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny is detained during an anticorruption rally in central Moscow on March 26.
Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny is detained during an anticorruption rally in central Moscow on March 26.

2) A New Legitimacy Crisis: The End Of The Post-Crimea Reset?

But will a crackdown work this time?

Writing in Yezhednevny Zhurnal, political commentator Igor Yakovenko called the Kremlin's response thus far "multifaceted but predictable."

But he added that it was "highly likely" that too harsh a crackdown could lead to more violent protests in the future.

Whether the Kremlin can regain the initiative by using force, or whether that will backfire, largely depends on whether something Denis Volkov of the Levada Center calls "the Crimea reset" has faded.

In a piece last September, Volkov argued that Putin's regime was suffering a legitimacy crisis between 2009 and 2013, a crisis that fueled the mass street protests of 2011-12 and led to Navalny's meteoric rise as an opposition leader.

This legitimacy crisis lasted despite the Kremlin's harsh crackdown on dissent that followed Putin's return to the Kremlin in May 2012. And it intensified into an existential threat when the Ukrainian Euromaidan of 2013-14 seemed to inspire Russia's opposition.

And then came the annexation of Crimea, the war in the Donbas, and the ensuing patriotic fervor that rejuvenated the regime. In that atmosphere, resistance was not only futile -- it was dangerous.

Pro-Kremlin activists celebrate the annexation of Crimea in Moscow. (file photo)
Pro-Kremlin activists celebrate the annexation of Crimea in Moscow. (file photo)

But there are some signs that this is fading.

A series of videos have appeared online of high school and university students pushing back against forced patriotism in the classroom.

And it is not just a youth rebellion. Prominent Russians are also becoming less shy about criticizing the authorities.

Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov, for example, used his acceptance speech at the Nika film awards this week to condemn police violence against the protesters.

Russian truckers, meanwhile, are continuing their strike against an unpopular road tax.

And this is all happening as the Kremlin prepares for presidential elections next March -- elections they had hoped to turn into a coronation.

"The more strain that is required from the power elite, and the more resources it has to accumulate during the process of preparing society for the 2018 election, the more rapid and less tractable the decline in the legitimacy of Putin’s regime will be thereafter," Volkov wrote.

Regimes like Putin's are not sustained by force alone, but also by a collective hallucination of omnipotence, invulnerability, and inevitability. And they get in trouble when the collective hallucination ends.

3) Kremlin Intrigue: A Deeper Game Afoot?

Not all the noises coming out of official Moscow about last weekend's protests have been hostile.

Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko, for instance, has called on the authorities to listen to the protesters concerns about corruption.

And Federation Council member Vyacheslav Markhayev has suggested that the corruption allegations in Navalny's exposé of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's property holdings -- the nominal cause of the demonstrations -- should be investigated.

The fact that Medvedev is being assailed as Russia prepares for next year's presidential election suggests that, in addition to the genuine popular anger that drove last week's protests, there might also be some Kremlin intrigue afoot here as well.

That is, somebody may be trying to use the Navalny report and last weekend's protests to remove Medvedev from office.

"In a police state like Russia, investigative journalism is something that happens only when powerful interests want to screw over their rivals," Damir Marusic and Karina Orlova wrote in The American Interest.

"These particular revelations about Medvedev’s ill-gotten gains held a specific private message intended for Putin himself."

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visit the remote Arctic islands of Franz Josef Land on March 29.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visit the remote Arctic islands of Franz Josef Land on March 29.

If that was the case, then Medvedev's highly publicized trip to the Arctic with Putin this week appeared to indicate that he is still in favor in the Kremlin.

And after that trip, Medvedev appeared eager to assert his authority -- uncharacteristically playing the tough guy and berating underlings for arriving late for a Cabinet meeting.

It is ironic that the last time Russians protested in large numbers, in 2011-12, it was driven by disappointment that the "liberal" Medvedev was being pushed out of the Kremlin by Vladimir Putin in the infamous "castling."

Now protesters are calling for Medvedev's head.

So it is deja vu -- except that it's different.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune into this week's Power Vertical Podcast on March 31 when we will discuss the aftermath of last weekend's protests and the issues raised in this post. Joining me will be co-host Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations in Prague and Anna Arutunyan, author of the book The Putin Mystique.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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