MOSCOW—Protests in Russia over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny are threatening to escalate into a larger movement against the Kremlin, driven by frustration over falling living standards and shrinking political freedoms as President Vladimir Putin cements his long-term hold on the country.
The Russian leader for years has ridden the popularity generated by his aggressive foreign policy that has seen Moscow defy the West with hacking attacks and military interventions in Ukraine and the Middle East, and re-establish itself on the global stage since its decline under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.
But the weekend protests over the detention of Mr. Navalny on his return to Russia after recovering from a poisoning attack are threatening to turn into a broader movement. Discontent is now shifting to anger after a court ordered Mr. Navalny to be held in pretrial custody for 30 days, propelled by chronic corruption, the pain from the collapse of oil prices last year and Covid-19 lockdown measures.
“We have a real problem with corruption, on the one hand, and with poverty, on the other hand,” said Evgeniya Ragozina, a 28-year-old lawyer who braved temperatures of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit to join a rally in the Siberian city of Tyumen. She added that Mr. Navalny’s arrest was just the trigger.
“People are more scared of the fact that they don’t see a decent future for themselves,” she said. “That’s why I will be [protesting] until the end of Putin’s political regime.”
Saturday’s rallies were among the largest nationwide displays of dissent in recent years, with more than 100,000 people attending in all, according to estimates by local media. Police detained some 3,700 people on the day, more than any other time since a wave of anti-Kremlin protests rocked Russia in 2011 and 2012.
Organizers said they plan more demonstrations for Sunday, at a time when Mr. Putin has been laying the groundwork to stay in power for years to come. Last year, Russians endorsed a raft of constitutional amendments initiated by the Kremlin that would allow him to stay on until 2036, in a vote that was largely organized as a show of support for the leader.
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Mr. Navalny has become a symbol for the protests after he was detained on his return from Germany, where he had been recovering from a poisoning attack in Siberia over the summer. Last weekend’s rallies, in which protesters brawled with police and pummeled them with snowballs, included many of his followers.
But the crowds also included a broader coalition of middle-aged and middle-class Russians. Surveys among protesters in Moscow on Saturday found that over 40% were protesting for the first time. The protests are taking place against a background of rising poverty levels and rising inflation, triggered by a 20% decline in the value of the ruble last year. Many Russians say the government hadn’t done enough to ease the blow dealt by the pandemic, either.
Mr. Putin isn’t in any imminent political danger. Many Russians still view him as irreplaceable and his approval rating stood at 65% in November, according to independent pollster Levada. He also has Russia’s security forces and judiciary on his side, providing him ample scope to wait out the protests, much as his counterpart in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has done since a disputed election in the summer.
But Mr. Navalny and his team are continuing to chip away at Mr. Putin’s authority with the large online audience he built by releasing videos accusing Kremlin-linked officials of corruption. In the days before the protest, they released another video, this time featuring an opulent palace with a casino and indoor ice hockey rink that was allegedly built for Mr. Putin on the shores of the Black Sea. Unusually, Mr. Putin spoke out on Monday, denying any knowledge of who owns the building and calling the accusations lies. Normally he tries to belittle Mr. Navalny, avoid using his name or ignore his accusations.
The clip had already accumulated more than 90 million views on YouTube and struck a chord with many Russians who had largely become inured to tales of the leader’s wealth.
“The mood in society is changing,” said Konstantin Kalachev, a Moscow-based political analyst, who said there was a broad spectrum of problems driving people into the street. “The reason for the protest is different for each protester.”
The Kremlin’s initial response appears to be to cast Mr. Navalny as an agent of the U.S. and its allies. The head of Russia’s powerful Security Council said on Tuesday that the West needs Mr. Navalny to destabilize Russia.
Mr. Putin has long reveled in the confrontation with the West, which has triggered Western sanctions in response to alleged hacking attacks and an attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which Mr. Putin has denied. Last year, Russian lawmakers passed into law a bill designating political or campaign groups that receive funds from abroad as foreign agents, subjecting them to restrictions.
Political analysts, though, suggest Mr. Putin and his allies are still searching for a strategy beyond mass arrests to contain the swell in protests, and will likely be well aware of how similar rallies forced them to free Mr. Navalny after he was detained in 2013.
“The Kremlin has no strategy or even tactic to respond, other than the line of force,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert on Russian domestic policy at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
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