As Alexey Navalny’s Life Hangs in the Balance, the Movement’s Momentum Flags

Alexey Navalny Supporters

Navalny supporters participate in rally on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Imprisoned in Penal Colony No. 2 outside Moscow, Alexey Navalny had spent 24 days on a hunger strike before Russian authorities granted his request to be seen by civilian doctors on Friday. Although it is not clear that public pressure forced the government’s hand, the Kremlin’s concession followed protests in 23 Russian cities and several foreign capitals, in which thousands of people demanded Navalny’s release.

But that turnout was dramatically smaller compared to January, when over 100,000 took to the streets after the opposition leader was arrested on return to his native country from Germany, where he had been recovering from Novichok poisoning. While some 1,700 attendees were arrested on Wednesday, including at least 10 journalists, the police response was more restrained than during previous banned protests.

Despite Friday’s rare bit of good news, the movement’s momentum appears to be flagging. For all the international outpouring of support following his heroic return to Russia after a near-fatal poisoning, the 116 million views of his video exposé of “Putin’s palace,” and all the cruelty with which the state has treated him and his supporters, only 4 percent of Russians say they are prepared to trust him, according to a March study by the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent pollster (Putin’s trust rating stood at 31 percent).

Protest organizers even fell short of the 500,000 online signatures they originally sought in order to hold the rallies (which in the end went ahead regardless). As the liberal journalist Andrey Loshak lamented, “400,000 people in a population of 146 million is a rounding error. What dictator would listen to a third of a percent?”

Certainly, the climate of fear has had a chilling effect. The government is currently preparing legislation to classify Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and network of regional headquarters as an extremist organisation on par with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. But the low numbers of active Navalny supporters cannot simply be attributed to increased levels of state repression.

“While outside of Russia, there are widespread assumptions that Navalny is being embraced at home as the leader of the Russian opposition,” wrote Alexander Baunov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center in a recent article, “only about 20 percent of the population is sympathetic toward him. It appears that Navalny may have overestimated the readiness of ordinary people to support him.”

To make things worse, vocal US and European advocacy for Navalny has enabled Putin to denounce him—with some success—as a foreign import with a core base limited to Western powers and their fellow travelers among the Russian liberal intelligentsia, who are portrayed as elitist, Moscow-centric, and detached from reality. However well-meaning, the international spotlight on Navalny as Russia’s last hope for democracy has played into the hands of the Kremlin, which hopes that by silencing just one voice it can wipe out the current wave of dissent.

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