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The conviction and sentencing of Russian activist Alexei Navalny this week sends a stark message: Any organized civil resistance to Vladimir Putin’s rule, be it to corruption or authoritarianism, no matter how peaceful and constructive, will be crushed mercilessly. Among those “in the pipeline” are a dozen protesters, jailed since Putin’s inauguration as president 13 months ago, including the only opposition mayor of a major city, Evgeny Urlashov of Yaroslavl, and a leftist leader, Sergei Udaltsov, for months now under house arrest awaiting trial on charges of plotting mass disorder with the goal of overthrowing the regime.
As usual, the leitmotif of the Washington debate will be: “We cannot do anything, so why say anything?”
This is a straw man. There is a long distance between the hubris of omniscience and hopelessness. Of course, the U.S. government cannot (and should not) try to change the regime in Russia. The Russian people will take care of it. But for those who struggle for a free, democratic, stable, and prosperous Russia, one at peace in the long last with its own people and the world, moral support is both legal and powerful. We know from the memoirs of former dissidents and prisoners of communist and authoritarian regimes how effective such solidarity could be — and how dispiriting is its absence.
Yes, there is nothing that can be done to keep Navalny from a labor camp after the appeals are exhausted. But quite a bit can be done to crack the Kremlin’s confidence – and boost that of anti-authoritarian protesters. With leaker Edward Snowden soon to be granted temporary political asylum, walking around Moscow and giving press conferences scripted by the Kremlin, how much more excuse does President Obama need to boycott the upcoming G-20 summit in St. Petersburg (just like Putin boycotted the 2012 G-8 meeting hosted by Obama)? At the very least, Obama can cancel his planned side meeting with Putin in Moscow.
For an administration that from the first days of its second term has signaled to the Kremlin that its only interest in Russia was securing another round of nuclear arms reductions and that in pursuit of this goal it was prepared to ignore whatever is happening in Russia, a diplomatic demarche at this level would make the Putin regime stand up and notice: There is a price to pay for domestic repression. This is not likely to stop the authoritarian consolidation, but it might slow its pace, lessening the number of victims and the harshness of repression.
Yet the worst, most troubling damage done by the Navalny sentence might already be irreversible. It is the damage to Russia’s post-Putin future, when the increasingly unpopular regime falters fatally (as it almost certainly will) from a combination of economic downturn and diminishing standard of living, budget cuts, and shrinking expenditures on health care and education, as well as moral revulsion over the rampant, paralyzing corruption and high-handedness.
Putin’s assault on civil society and its leaders has been systematically extirpating thousands of loci of grass-roots democracy that teach personal responsibility, self-organization, peaceful dissent, and compromise — just as Hosni Mubarak had done before his fall. And again, as in Egypt, left in the rubble of civil society are only, hatred, radicalism, and zero-sum politics — a scorched earth, incapable of rooting democratic institutions. As Russia jails its Navalnys or pushes them into exile, or harasses and marginalizes them into silence, it prepares something very close to the Egyptian situation: When the regime collapses, there is no “critical mass” of responsible civil society leaders to take over, to step in, to fill the void, to reach out to opponents.
The Russian street has already made its conclusions: “People who are willing to change Russia for the better end up in jail,” said a participant in rally in Moscow, following the verdict. “At least when Navalny was around, there was hope,” said another.
Now, that hope — the hope of a constructive peaceful protest as a means to better Russia — is all but gone. One of the leaders of the opposition (and one of Russia’s most popular writers, Boris Akunin) has declared the Navalny verdict to be the last straw for those “who thought it was possible to change this system through elections.” “As long as the Putin regime is alive, there will be no elections,” in which the opposition should participate, Akunin said.
Navalny, a lawyer who used to carefully measure his words and was ready to participate in the political system, no matter how flawed (including registering to run for the mayor of Moscow in September), said in his concluding statement in court: “I declare that I and my colleagues will do everything to destroy this feudal system of power, in which 83 percent of national wealth belongs to 0.5 percent of the population. … We will be destroying this feudal system that is robbing everyone …[and that] sits like a spider in the Kremlin, the 100 families that are sucking in [wealth] of Russia… a bunch of freaks who… grabbed everything.” As the judge read the sentence, Navalny posted a tweet in which he compared the regime to a toad that sits on the oil pipeline and would “not remove itself.” Implication: The toad of the regime can only be removed by force.
Does this sound like a call for constructive engagement and compromise?
Having chosen, as authoritarians almost always do, short-term survival by repression over reforms needed for country’s progress, the Putin regime will have only itself to blame when a crisis strikes and there is no one left to ask for help, compromise — or perhaps even for mercy.
Leon Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 (Yale University Press, Spring 2012)
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