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The Battle For Russia

(Cartoon by Sergei Elkin, RFE/RL)

It's time again for that annual ritual.

The national leader perched in a state-of-the-art television studio. The pomp and circumstance. The ceremonial grandeur and high-tech props. All designed to make him look like the master of the universe.

He'll field carefully prescreened questions from meticulously vetted ordinary citizens from across 11 time zones.

There will be pithy one-liners and probably some salty language. There will be well-orchestrated surprises designed to grab headlines. And the state-controlled media will breathlessly spin it all as evidence of a man with a plan -- and a man in full control.

We've seen it all before, this perennial rite of spring.

But just a few days before this year's big show, there was another spectacle in town.

The revolutionary maverick locked up yet again as tens of thousands of his followers took to the streets across more than 100 cities to denounce the regime and its leader as hopelessly corrupt.

Throngs of teenagers and young adults being hauled off by police in full riot gear. Protesters jiggling their keys in the air in a defiant gesture reminiscent of a peaceful Velvet Revolution that inspired the world decades ago.

Welcome to the battle for Russia's future.

Beyond 2018

In many ways, the optics of this week are a microcosm of what appears to be a long, slow struggle ahead. It will be a test of wills, a contest of images, and a competition of narratives.

Vladimir Putin, in effect, will be telling the people that he's making Russia great again.

And Aleksei Navalny is saying we can do much better than this.

Putin has said it is still too early to reveal whether he will seek a fourth term in the Kremlin in next year's presidential election. But few seriously doubt he will.

And few expect Navalny, who has just been sentenced to 30 days in jail for organizing this week's unauthorized protests, to be allowed on the ballot.

But the ongoing clash between Putin and Navalny is about more than the March 2018 election, the result of which most observers see as a foregone conclusion.

As Russia approaches the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution, Navalny is trying to become the first Russian politician since Vladimir Lenin to seize power from outside the system.

He's playing a long game, pecking away at the ruling elite's legitimacy bit by bit with viral videos exposing corruption and mass demonstrations that flout the Kremlin's rules on public gatherings.

He's carefully positioning himself for the day when the Putin regime ultimately exhausts itself.

And the Kremlin is relying on tried-and-true methods to stop him.

There was the overwhelming force on display as the police and National Guard faced down the June 12 protests.

There were the detentions of more than 1,500 protesters across the country.

And there will be the flashy bells and whistles of the Kremlin PR machine when Putin goes before the cameras in his annual call-in program on June 15.

The Importance Of Storytelling

But beneath this facade, something is conspicuously absent.

For the first time in his long rule, Putin appears to be lacking something he's always had in the past: a compelling story to tell the Russian people.

He's missing the legitimizing myth he's always relied on to justify that he, and only he, can rule.

For his first two terms in the Kremlin, Putin was the man who restored order, saved Russia from the chaos of the 1990s, battled the oligarchs, and brought unprecedented prosperity.

Nevermind that Putin benefited handsomely from the chaos of the 1990s and was busy creating his own oligarchy to replace the one he vanquished.

People bought the story anyway, and enough were content to trade political freedom for stability and rising living standards.

And when that story had run its course, Putin turned to a new narrative, a new legitimizing myth, in his third term.

He annexed Crimea and implicitly promised Russians a mighty empire that would reclaim its pride of place in the world. His popularity soared and he looked invincible.

But evidence is mounting that the Crimea buzz is wearing off. Putin badly needs a new story to tell.

A recent poll by the Levada Center showed that Russians now care more about the country's sputtering economy than about Crimea.

And as this is happening, Navalny is telling a story of his own.

He's telling Russians that they can do better. That they can think of themselves as citizens and not as subjects. That they can have honest and accountable government. That if corruption can only be vanquished, they could enjoy European-level standards of living.

He's essentially telling Russians: Yes, we can.

"I want to live in a modern democratic state and I want our taxes to be converted into roads, schools, and hospitals, not into yachts, palaces, and vineyards," Navalny wrote on his blog recently.

And he's appealing to the young, to a generation that wasn't born in the Soviet Union and thus has no nostalgia for it, a generation that doesn't remember the wild and chaotic '90s and thus doesn't fear their return.

Opposition journalist Oleg Kashin wrote in his column for that Navalny is counting on those "whose idealism will be stronger than the cynicism and skepticism of people who have been in politics for a long time."

And, in the process, he has turned himself into the second most important politician in the country.

Kashin adds that "it doesn't matter" whether Navalny is allowed on the ballot next year. Because he's already competing in a different election.

This week is just a teaser. The battle between Putin and Navalny has only just begun.

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on June 16, when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-host Mark Galeotti and guest Natalia Antonova.

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

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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