20 years under Putin: a timeline

July 18, 2013—conviction day for Russian nonsystemic opposition leader Alexei Navalny—has been called the point of no return in the course of deteriorating relations between the authorities and society. This decision provoked the first unauthorized mass spontaneous protest in Putin’s Russia in downtown Moscow, with thousands of people coming out into the central streets of the capital. Political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya examines the political consequences of the Kirov court’s decision.



To understand what is happening in the Navalny case, one can analyze what this case and the Yukos case have in common and how they are different. There are not many similarities between these two cases. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny are both perceived by the authorities as dangerous figures who are capable of challenging the regime and becoming potent threats to the “vertical of power.”

However, at that point, the similarities stop and the differences begin. First, Navalny did not have at his disposal the resources that were available to the former Yukos head. In 2003, Khodorkovsky was one of the most prominent businessmen in Russia and exerted significant influence over legislative and executive decisions. He controlled the country’s largest oil company and had strong ties to both the Russian and the Western political elite. He was in the process of building relationships with the systemic opposition and had directly challenged the Kremlin. He had reasons to do so: it was Khodorkovsky who first began to build civilized business in Russia by making Yukos the country’s first Western-style, transparent company. In other words, he was a part of the system and had the audacity to try to change it from within.

Navalny is a different story. He is not rich, he does not have significant business resources, and he has no contacts in Parliament or the government. He is not a systemic element. Prior to 2011, the nonsystemic opposition in Russia was largely marginalized, not because it was unable to offer an adequate development program for the country, as the media loyal to the Kremlin love to suggest, but because of the Kremlin’s conscious hardline strategy, which purged the political field, deprived its critics of access to the mass media, toughened political and election laws, and artificially pushed the opposition from the legitimate field of political life.

The marginal status of the opposition ended in December 2011, when spontaneous mass protests against fraud in the State Duma elections swept across the country. It was during this period that new stars began to appear on the political map of Russia. Alexei Navalny was the brightest of these stars, and he became a real political force.

The marginal status of the opposition ended in December 2011, when spontaneous mass protests swept across the country.

Here, then, is the second important difference between Navalny and Khodorkovsky in their roles as enemies of the regime. The latter did not have significant public support “from below.” Recall that in 2003, the Yukos affair was shocking above all for the elite. Society at the time was under the powerful influence of the so-called anti-oligarchic trend, which was also largely artificially induced. The authorities were actively talking about the injustice of the privatization process that was carried out in the 1990s; at that time, Russian society could not possibly be regarded as an ally of Khodorkovsky. Having initiated the Yukos trial and arrested Khodorkovsky in October 2003, the government clearly understood that it relied on the support of “Putin’s majority,” which did not like the rich. This social contract between the government and society was the basis for the decision to reform the whole system of relations between business and the government. And so in October 2003, the existence of the so-called oligarchs—the powerful business clans that were able to dictate to the government the conditions of the state system and its functioning—came to an end. The government was able to withstand the dissatisfaction of the elites, while officials and businessmen who loudly declared their opposition soon lost ground or adapted to the circumstances. The country was forced to swallow the verdict of the Yukos case, paying for it with extreme damage to its reputation.

Navalny, however, is not a businessman, and the attitude of the majority of the Russian population toward him is either neutral or nonexistent: many (especially those outside the major cities) simply do not know who he is. In other words, he has virtually no negative ratings—a huge asset that can be transformed into an electoral resource. Moreover, according to Levada Center polls, Navalny is the most popular of the leaders who came out into Moscow’s streets, and his position continues to strengthen. Thus, according to a Levada Center survey, conducted with the support of the Voters League, Navalny became the undisputed favorite of protesters on June 12. His electoral rating as a candidate for mayor of Moscow among the protesters has been measured as 62 percent.

Navalny’s popularity has several components. The first is his reputation. He is not associated with the enrichment of the 1990s, he is young, and he has pronounced leadership qualities. He has not been involved in any corruption scandals and has never been associated with the federal government.

Second, Navalny has been actively engaged with socially significant projects, including Rospil, a website dedicated to the exposure of corruption in large state-owned companies and government institutions; RosZhKH, a project that monitors how officials in the housing sector—a problematic area of government that affects literally every Russian—execute their duties; RosYama, a site that monitors the state of Russian roads; and Rosvybory, a project dedicated to the protection of voting rights. The authorities have tried to convince the public that the nonsystemic opposition is unable to offer an adequate development program for the country, but Navalny’s work addresses the problems that the current government has shown itself to be ineffective in solving. Navalny is dangerous to the regime because he teaches Russian citizens to understand their rights, to know the law, and to defend their interests against officials.


The rally in support of Alexei Navalny on July 18 was the largest unsanctioned gathering in Moscow in recent years.


Third, Navalny was the first Russian politician to skillfully combine the ideas of patriotism and liberalism. This is not about a political coalition with the nationalists, but about a healthy patriotism that has been “privatized” by Putin. The traditional Russian liberal opposition has always distinguished itself from the national-patriotic movement. It is for this reason that many 1990s-era liberals dislike Navalny.

All of these characteristics make Alexei Navalny not just a promising leader on Russia’s political map, but the number one threat to the regime of Vladimir Putin.

And here we come to another very important difference between the Navalny case and the Yukos affair: justice. Even if the Khodorkovsky sentences were legally absurd and politically motivated, opinion polls show that Khodorkovsky, as a symbol of the 1990s-era elite, paid for the injustices of post-Soviet politics and for the resulting poverty unleashed on the Russian people. The former Yukos head had to assume the heavy burden of paying for the policies of Boris Yeltsin—or at least that is how a significant part of the Russian population sees it. Putin has skillfully taken advantage of popular discontent with unfair privatization, placing responsibility for the people’s woes on the shoulders of the former owner of Russia’s largest oil company.

In the Navalny case, public opinion is very different: he is perceived as a whistleblower, and the imposition of a prison sentence against him is seen as the personification of injustice. Even those who did not previously sympathize with Navalny or looked at him without special reverence are now changing their attitude towards him in the wake of the Kirov court’s verdict. The motives of the authorities appear extremely questionable in this situation.

All this will have serious political consequences. First, a core has been formed within the nonsystemic opposition, and its name is Alexei Navalny. A polycentric nonsystemic field will likely form around his figure, his program, and his political talents. So far, no political decision has caused such an unambiguous market reaction: the Navalny sentence provoked the collapse of the Russian stock market.

Second, the government is beginning to oscillate between two political lines that it can take in responding to the nonsystemic opposition. The first line is to enact the most stringent measures possible and institute a crackdown to suppress the opposition. The second line allows for relative competition and criticism of the government in a controlled format in an attempt to maintain the legitimacy of the regime and federal elections.

Today, many experts think that a split is occurring within the political elite between the first and the second lines. However, this is not quite true. The split, or a kind of schizophrenia, is occurring in the minds of the same people who are making decisions. This is a result of their lack of a clear strategy for engagement with the opposition and lack of understanding of what is happening in the country. Simply put, the Kremlin simply does not know how to perceive the new political phenomenon in Russia, how to react to it, and what its optimal tactics and strategy might be. The regime is confused and obsessed with its fear of the unknown and the uncontrolled.

Navalny is perceived as a whistleblower, and the imposition of a prison sentence against him is seen as the personification of injustice.

That is why it has mixed solutions, rushing from one approach to another. One of the main intrigues of the Navalny trial is why the prosecutor on July 18 demanded the immediate arrest of the politician, but on the evening of the same day dramatically changed his position by recommending that the court release Navalny on bail until the sentence came into force. The Russian media has offered one version of the existence of “different Kremlin towers”: the siloviki (security forces) bent their hard line and then adjusted it to be more reasonable. This could also have happened in response to the pressure of the spontaneous protests in defense of Navalny that broke out in downtown Moscow.

Certainly, the events in Moscow have played a role in shaping the government’s response: these protests were a genuine manifestation of civic dignity by the growing middle class. But the release of Navalny the day after the sentence was not the result of competition between different “Kremlin towers,” but the result of hesitation and doubt in the mind of one man—Vladimir Putin. One should not entertain the illusion that Navalny’s arrest was the outcome of the siloviki’s decision to act without the knowledge of the president. Putin and only Putin initially gave the go-ahead for the arrest and then for the release of Navalny. The government’s simultaneous fear of Navalny on the loose and its fear of Navalny in jail are representative of the schizophrenia of the authorities.

However, the practical steps that the Kremlin has taken over the past year and a half show that its fear of the free nonsystemic opposition is much stronger than its fear of spontaneous protests. Navalny’s release on July 19 may be a part of the game called “Moscow mayoral election”: the campaign is a de facto national one, and needs legitimacy. The Kremlin’s dream is that Navalny will badly lose the mayoral election, which would give the regime, in its understanding, the moral right to reject the appeal and implement the sentence. Perhaps this was the original plan. But the Kremlin is unlikely to recognize that not all elements of the plan can be controlled. On July 18, 2013, a new political phenomenon—civil intolerance to the politically biased and inadequate actions of the authorities—was born in the country. It could be a turning point in the history of Putin’s Russia.