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The Week In Russia: A Tale Of Two Countries

An electronic screen, installed on the facade of a building in Yekaterinburg, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin as he delivers his annual address on April 21.
An electronic screen, installed on the facade of a building in Yekaterinburg, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin as he delivers his annual address on April 21.

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President Vladimir Putin stuck to a familiar narrative of unity in his annual address, while crowds of protesters demanding imprisoned Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny's release told a different story. Doctors urged Navalny to end his hunger strike, saying it could soon lead to "the saddest outcome."

Russia said it will start pulling back troops from Crimea and the border with Ukraine, while revelations about explosions in 2014 have caused a huge rift in Moscow's ties with the Czech Republic.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

A Speech And Street Protests

Two Russias were on display outside the Kremlin on April 21: One eager for change; the other, according to critics of President Vladimir Putin, unwilling or unable to deliver it -- or both.

In his annual state-of-the-nation address, delivered to a jaded-looking, largely unmasked group of senior officials, lawmakers, and other figures from the ruling elite at an exhibition hall steps from the Kremlin wall, Putin did not even promise change this time, observers who parsed the 80-minute address said.

He promised a recovery from the coronavirus and its economic effects, cash payments for struggling citizens, more housing, roads, schools, and school buses -- but he did not promise any fundamental change or reform.

"What Putin did not do today -- and what he has not done for some time -- is offer Russians a vision of the future that looks like anything other than a continuation of the present," Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, wrote in a Twitter thread focusing on Putin's spending promises.

"Perhaps most telling…is that Putin said nothing about the impact all of this would have on the economy overall: nothing about rising growth or incomes, nothing about the number of jobs created," Greene wrote. "Just the amount of homes built and money handed out."

Barring the unexpected, the prospects for fundamental political change are perhaps even dimmer than they are for economic reform, barring the unexpected.

The handouts may bolster the unpopular ruling party's results in September parliamentary elections seen as a test for Putin midway through his current term.

Buying Votes?

"Putin understood that the only way for him to mobilize his electorate is not with slogans, not with war, not with geopolitics, but with money: it's necessary to simply buy the voters, to hand them money, and that's the only way to provide…United Russia with votes," political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov told Current Time.

The target date for fulfilling several of the pledges he made was 2024 – when Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, may be running for another six-year term.

Under constitutional changes he pushed through last year, Putin could still be president at this time in 2036, when millions of the children he cast in the speech as the focus of his efforts will be grownups.

The other Russia was in evidence when thousands of protesters gathered -- first in Far Eastern cities like Vladivostok as Putin was starting his speech, then later in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and about 100 other locations across the country -- to call for the release of Aleksei Navalny, an imprisoned Kremlin opponent whose health condition has worsened since he started a hunger strike on March 31.

Protests Across Russia Show Support For Jailed Kremlin Critic Navalny
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For the second time in eight months, Navalny seems to be at risk of death. The first time was in August, when he was nearly killed by a nerve agent from the Novichok group that was apparently smeared on his underwear in an attack that he blames on Putin and the Federal Security Service.

As in the protests in January, after Navalny was arrested upon returning to Russia from Germany -- where he had flown and been treated following the nerve-agent poisoning in Siberia -- the hopes and demands of demonstrators went beyond the release of the Kremlin foe.

Instead, they encompassed a range of complaints about life under Putin's rule -- including the prospect that it could continue for another 15 years. "Putin in the dock!" was one chant from the crowd in Moscow on April 21, as the crowd marched through the streets.

'Very Different Concepts'

Navalny is an opposition leader in part because he is a symbol of the broader change that millions of Russians want, economic, political, cultural, or otherwise -- the symbol of an alternative to Putin, regardless of how many would vote for him if given the chance.

"We can relate differently to his political program, to his personality as a whole. But today, by his actions, by his fate, he has become the rallying point that for a huge number of people symbolizes change," Ivan Kurilla, a historian and political analyst who has been attending the protests since January, told North.Realities, an outlet of RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

The slogan "Freedom for Aleksei Navalny" represents the minimum that the state should do," said Kurilla. He attends protests, he said, in the hope that "the group that now controls the Russian state will finally leave -- restore democratic elections and cede power to those who win these democratic elections."

When he protested in St. Petersburg on April 21, Kurilla's mind was not so much on Navalny as a far lesser-known figure: Yefim Khazanov, a Russian Academy of Sciences member and deputy director of the Institute of Applied Physics in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod who was detained for reposting a Facebook post about a protest in support of Navalny.

"Society has split," Kurilla said. "The part that holds power and the part that the scholar arrested today represents have very different concepts of what Russia is."

In his speech that same day, Putin ignored that other part of society: He made no direct mention of Navalny or the protests in the streets, only hinting once or twice at two things that he has stated outright without evidence several times: that the Kremlin foe and the demonstrators are not to be considered "constructive forces" and are pawns of Washington and the West.

Still, the patterns of the police response to the nationwide protests suggested that Putin and the Kremlin were in fact keeping a close watch and making political calculations. In St. Petersburg, police detained more than 800 people, beating and using shock batons on some of them -- echoing the violence they employed nationwide against protesters in January.

'Don't Be Euphoric'

Nationwide, police detained more than 1,900 people in connection with the rallies, in what was described as part of a "shocking crackdown on basic freedoms."

But in Moscow the demonstrators were left largely untouched. That was deliberate, according to Andrei Kolesnikov, chairman of the Russian Domestic Politics Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"Don't be euphoric: the authorities tried to avoid brutality specifically in Moscow, so as not to spoil the impression of Putin's address," Kolesnikov wrote on Twitter. "Soon Navalny's structures will be recognized as extremist, and then we'll see."

That was a reference to a request from prosecutors to label Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation and his network of offices nationwide "extremist organizations," a designation that would outlaw them and make membership in or funding of them a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

5 Things To Know About Russian Opposition Leader Aleksei Navalny
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A Moscow court is to begin addressing the matter on April 26. In addition to its impact inside Russia, labeling Navalny's organizations as extremist would cause an outcry in the West and further damage Moscow's severely strained ties with the United States and the European Union.

If the relatively mild treatment of the Moscow protesters was carefully calculated, observers said, so was Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's April 22 announcement that military forces that had entered Russian-occupied Crimea and approached the Ukrainian border near the areas held by Russia-backed separatists would start pulling back to their permanent bases on April 23.

In other words, a large and largely unexplained military buildup, which drew pointed criticism from the West, would soon be over, Shoigu suggested -- and with it, at least for now, the fears of a major new Russian offensive against Ukraine.

The announcement came one day after Putin's state-of-the-nation speech -- which, like several of the 16 previous annual addresses he has delivered as president, included a sharply worded warning to the West.

The length and ferocity of these diatribes has differed from year to year: In 2018, Putin demanded that the United States and EU "listen to us now" and listed several weapons -- some nuclear -- that he said Russia was developing.

This time, Putin's warning followed a very familiar formula, placing blame on the other side in advance for any conflict or confrontation.

"We want good relations...and we really don't want to burn bridges," Putin said. "But if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down or even blow up these bridges, they should know that Russia's response will be asymmetrical, swift, and harsh."

In the past, Putin has often used strong words to hide meeker actions: climbdowns, in fact. He has also seemed to go to the brink of some highly aggressive move but then stepped back, taking a more pragmatic course after gauging the potential response and the consequences.

Kremlin Calculations

In moving to pull back military forces that had encroached upon Ukraine and poured into Crimea -- if that really happens, and there are doubts-- he may have done both this week.

"On both fronts -- with Ukraine and with the opposition -- the Kremlin is likely to have calculated that further escalation would create unpredictability, at a time when Putin is clearly hoping for smooth sailing," Greene, of Kings College London, wrote on Twitter.

"But if the Kremlin believes that de-escalation is a more easily controllable process, that's only because it believes it has proven its points, and that both Ukraine and the opposition will avoid pressing their respective advantages, lest Moscow re-escalate," he wrote, adding: "We'll see."

Speaking of escalation, tensions between Russia and the Czech Republic rose dramatically after the government in Prague accused the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU of being behind an explosion in the eastern town of Vrbetice that killed two people in 2014.

There has also been a shift this week in the plight of Navalny, who declared his hunger strike to demand treatment by his own doctors -- but where it will lead is harrowingly unclear. That has so far been denied, but several of his doctors said on April 22 that Navalny had been evaluated by several physicians at a civilian hospital two days earlier and that they were given the results.

They urged Navalny to end his hunger strike, saying in a letter they planned to get to him on April 23 that "further fasting…could lead to the saddest outcome: death."

"If the hunger strike continues for even a minimal amount of time, unfortunately we will soon simply have no one to treat," the doctors said. They repeated a demand that he be transferred to a high-quality civilian hospital in Moscow.

In a post on his Instagram channel, meanwhile, Navalny expressed "pride and hope" after the protests and called the thousands of people who took to the streets the previous day "the salvation of Russia."

He hailed "those who are not afraid, despite all the anger and hatred that is now flowing from the Kremlin. Because they understand: To be afraid now is to lose, sell, and waste your own future."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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