From Nezavisimaya gazeta, Jan. 25, 2021, complete text:
The main takeaways from the Saturday [Jan. 23] protests in various Russian cities can be summed up in two slogans: freedom for Navalny and shame on Putin. In other words, the radicalization of political life in the country has reduced the confrontation to a simple choice of “for” or “against.”
On the eve of the protests, everyone was worried about the possible mass participation in illegal actions by young students who had taken to TikTok with statements clearly in favor of Navalny and his most recent investigative report. The authorities, with widespread cooperation from parents, clamped down and prevented teenagers from taking to the streets. Pollsters, in turn, have identified young people aged 30 to 35 as the backbone of the protest activity, which fits better with the uncompromising nature of the stated reason for protesting.
Thank God, casualties and mass bloodshed were avoided. The occasional flare-ups, judging by what we have seen, are coming equally from the opposition and from the police/OMON riot police/[Russian] National Guard.
Now we should expect a response from the authorities, with Putin’s supporters taking to the streets and squares. It is not yet completely clear how they can get around the current ban on mass rallies during the pandemic. But [this problem] will probably have to be resolved, since Navalny’s supporters are ready to go out next weekend.
Leaving President Putin to deal with the protesters alone would be a political mistake, similar to what happened with [Belarussian President Aleksandr] Lukashenko during the first three weeks of the protests in Belarus [following allegations of mass voter fraud in the Aug. 9 presidential election; see Vol. 72, No. 33, pp. 3‑7 – Trans.].
Another important generational message of the protesters on Saturday was addressed to the security forces: “[You] don’t scare us” and “We are not afraid.” This is a new position for protest in Russia, [taken] in response to a series of repressive laws [against mass demonstrations] passed by the State Duma.
However, most experts and analysts cannot come to a plausible understanding of what is happening, and where the protest movement is leading or will lead Russian society. Navalny’s logic is not clear either, since he has surrendered to the authorities, apparently for the long term.
Can [anyone] effectively guide the ideology of a protest movement from prison? This is not even a rhetorical question. Theoretically, you can, but only if you have become an indisputable symbol of protest like Nelson Mandela. However, it is impossible to speak about Navalny in such terms today. What then? What is there to hope for? That the authorities will get off his back with criminal prosecutions? That is unlikely. Moreover, he will definitely not get off the authorities’ backs.
There is no apparent bargaining chip. EU countries can adopt a statement on Navalny, and they can demand that Putin release him. But then, Putin has not succumbed to external pressure for 20 years. For those same 20 years, he has been very consistently converting external pressure from the West into an increasingly conservative and even reactionary domestic policy in the Russian Federation.
The concept of a besieged fortress is understandable not only to Putin’s inner circle, but also to a good half of ordinary Russians. External pressure is a favorite argument of those who support a more muscular Russian government.
A deeper reflection on Saturday’s protests forces us to conclude that 30-year-olds in Russia do not like living with stagnant incomes and paltry opportunities to earn money. The last 10 years have been a waste in terms of bringing the economy to a new level. Nobody wants to wait another 10 to 12 years for changes not only in leadership, but also in economic policy.
So Navalny is just a pretext for these angry 30-year-olds to make themselves known. It doesn’t matter whether the palace is made of gold, silver or wood. The palace is a symbol of somebody’s prosperity. Young people will walk around and protest because they have almost nothing to lose. And the authorities should have no illusions: Material motives of discontent are the real driver of the protest movement, and it has obvious potential for growth.