Protests have rocked Russia in recent weeks, sparked by the Kremlin’s prosecution of its most effective critic, dissident Alexei Navalny. On Feb. 2, a Moscow court sentenced Navalny to more than two years in a penal colony for allegedly violating probation on a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Europe’s top human-rights court ruled was politically motivated. On Friday, Navalny faced a new criminal trial on charges of slandering a World War II veteran who appeared in a pro-Putin video last year. Navalny was arrested Jan. 17 at the airport in Moscow after spending five months in Germany recuperating after Russian intelligence officials attempted to assassinate him with poison, according to reporting by Russian investigative journalism outlets, Bellingcat, and CNN.
The Gazette spoke with Alexandra M. Vacroux, executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and lecturer on government at Harvard, about Navalny’s future, the protests, and what they could spell for Putin’s rule.
Alexandra M. Vacroux
GAZETTE: What’s driving such dramatic protests?
VACROUX: It’s mostly a reaction to the video that Navalny put out called “Putin’s Palace.” That seems to have really brought together different people who have problems with Putin’s regime in a new way. Before, you’d have Navalny supporters come out for Navalny events, but that’s far from everybody. Not everybody supports him for different reasons. And what we see now, at least according to interviews with people who are in these protests, you have people who don’t particularly support Navalny, but who are just disgusted with the level of corruption and think that it has to stop. You really see a broadening of the protests; at the same time, you see a very active crackdown. The police are not shooting people, but they are dragging them off the streets, beating them with batons, closing down metro stations in the middle of Moscow to keep the protests from consolidating in any one place. So they’re taking it very seriously.
GAZETTE: The video has over 100 million views on YouTube, but how many Russians have actually been able to see it and why has it galvanized so many people?
VACROUX: At the beginning of last week, the Navalny people were saying that 70 percent of those views were from inside of Russia. That’s obviously not unique viewers, but that’s a lot of people, and it’s a lot more than the 25 million or so who have watched some of his other exposés. This one has gotten a lot more traction than the previous videos, and it’s the first time that Putin has been so directly implicated in corruption. Navalny went after [former Prime Minister Dmitri] Medvedev and that made a lot of noise, but this is on a totally different order of magnitude. It was that there was proof; they were able to lay out the different holding companies and the different shell companies and tie them back to all of these obscure Putin family members and relatives. Everyone suspected that that was true, but there was no real proof of it because nothing is in Putin’s name. And [this video] was just so methodical in laying out how things have been structured. And then, the Kremlin reaction has been ludicrous, as well. The press secretary came out and said, “Of course that’s not Putin’s palace.” That didn’t work. Then Putin came out and said, “That’s not my palace, obviously.” And that didn’t really work. And then, they wheeled out [Arkady] Rotenberg, who is one of Putin’s childhood friends who’s become an ultra-billionaire and was like, “Oh, that’s my palace.” And nobody believes that either. So the usual tricks that they’ve used to quiet down the muttering haven’t worked this time. People just aren’t buying it.