A headstrong statesman and former KDB operative, Vladimir Putin continues to show unwavering strength in the face of recent political protest in the Russian Federation. Within the first month of 2021, Liberal Opposition Party leader Alexei Navalny was arrested and jailed by the Putin regime due to his past involvements in campaigns against the current Russian political rulers. Putin and Navalny are, in ways, involved in a political duel as Navalny attempts to rally the Russian people to his cause of anti-corruption and pro-democratic values. Meanwhile, Putin uses his immense political power in the Russian state to thwart these efforts and maintain a sense of stability within the nation. All of this contributes to decreased political stability for the Russian people and hinders the image of Russia on the international level. And yet, to understand the situation, one must understand the players and their field:
Who is Vladimir Putin and how has he led Russia for almost a decade?
Who is Alexei Navalny and how has he rallied the opposition?
And importantly, how does the Russian political landscape and its history shape this rivalry?
The Politics of Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin has been involved in the Russian world of politics long before his 2012 ascension to his prominent presidency. In 1975, he graduated university and became an intelligence operative for the KGB for 16 years. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the ensuing political chaos did not hinder him as he then went to work various government jobs under the Yeltsin administration. Putin was elected to the presidency from 1999 – 2008 and then again from 2012 until today. From an economic standpoint, Putin’s first segment of rule has been a great boost for the Russian economy as it made strides in cutting poverty, increasing overall GDP and PPP, and recovering from the post-communism depression. His leadership of the country contributed to an increased price for Russian exports of oil and gas which greatly contributed to the Russian economy.
At the end of 2008, Russia had too become a victim of the global recession and, in the years following, could no longer produce the same drastic levels of GDP growth. In order to hold his standing with the people, Putin chose to acquire foreign victories for Russia rather than large economic ones. In 2008, the Russo-Georgian War led to the annexation of some Georgian lands into Russia. In 2014, with Putin back in the presidency, Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine. Despite this illegal annexation and condemnation from the West, Putin’s support continued to hold in the domestic sphere. Putin has used his power frequently to hold the support of the majority of the Russian people. He is an experience statesman that knows the field and knows how to utilize his power. Despite being designed as a constitutional democracy, Russia has fallen under the rule of Putin and those who he keeps ties with. Let it be said though that such rule has greatly benefited the people of Russia in many ways. It is largely because of Putin’s rule that Russia was able to maintain its superpower standing despite its government’s complete shift in the 1990s. However, the growing political opposition has now made its presence known to Putin and his regime.
The Opposition of Alexei Navalny
“The man who Putin fears most” is Russian political activist Alexei Navalny who has for the past decade led the political opposition against Russian corruption and the Putin regime. He has stood in direct opposition to Russia’s current democratic backsliding under Putin. This backsliding has come in the form of barring political opponents and hindering the procedures of free and fair election. Being a victim of this himself, Navalny was brought up on criminal charges in 2013 of embezzlement by the Russian government in an attempt to prevent him from running for political office, especially the presidency. To cause further hinderance, Navalny was poisoned in late 2020 and hospitalized in Berlin. After recovering, he bravely returned to Russia to continue to lead the opposition but was detained and jailed due to his out-of-country absence which violated his parole. As of March 2021, Navalny is being moved to a labor-camp so as so finish his sentencing.
An anti-government troublemaker to some and a Russian political savior to others, Navalny has led a controversial life since his taking up of the mantel of the opposition. He stands against a regime that has had control of the nation for over 20 years. While this regime remains controversial on the international level, it has brough about significant benefit to the Russian people. However, for some like Navalny, such changes cannot excuse the inner issues of democratic failure within the Russian state. Since his time with the opposition, Navalny has advocated for increased clarity within Russian elections and a level of accountability for Putin and other leaders who are frequently abusing their powers for political and personal gain. The attack in his life in 2020 shows the clear lack of cooperation the Putin regime has in dealing with this political issue. It shows that Navalny and his supporters are a threat to the stability of the Putin regime. It shows that political upheaval maybe imminent within Russia. Most concerning is Navalny imprisonment though. Navalny has stated that he plans on continuing the fight from prison, but it cannot be overlooked how difficult this may become. Already, much of the protest against his imprisonment has been silenced by government forces. If a successful halt on democratic backsliding is to take place in Russia, the opposition must learn to adapt to Navalny situation and continue the fight despite his absence.
The Political Duel, Final Words
This continuing rivalry between Vladimir Putin and Alexei Navalny is a hope for some that Russia may stop its democratic failings. For some, its only a passing unrest that opposes a regime that has done largely good by the Russian people. The question now is whether the opposition parties will adapt to this change and whether Navalny will be able to finish his prison sentence intact.