MOSCOW—The jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny last month galvanized the biggest popular protests in Russia in nearly a decade, as his supporters were joined across the country by average Russians upset with falling living standards and shrinking political freedoms.
But Mr. Navalny’s allies have scrapped further protests following the detention of more than 6,000 in the recent demonstrations as well as police violence against the protesters—factors that could make it more difficult to keep mobilizing followers.
Instead, his movement will focus on parliamentary elections this September, when his backers hope to unseat the ruling United Russia party loyal to President Vladimir Putin.
The rallies triggered a crackdown by authorities, as police beat protesters and detained thousands, including many top allies of the opposition leader. That use of force risked putting average Russians who had gravitated to the movement on a dangerous path to confrontation with the Kremlin, said Leonid Volkov, one of Mr. Navalny’s top lieutenants.
“Tens of millions of people watched with horror as [Mr. Putin] showed he was ready to beat peaceful unarmed protesters with his storm troopers,” said Mr. Volkov in a video to supporters Thursday.
Last Sunday, Russian police detained the highest number of protesters in one day in recent history. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov the next day said law enforcement officers were justified because the protests were illegal.
The protests were organized in response to the detention of Mr. Navalny on his return last month from Germany, where he had been recovering from a poison attack last year. Underscoring broader dissatisfaction with the Kremlin, more than 40% of protesters at rallies across the country on Jan. 23 were demonstrating for the first time in their lives, one informal poll showed.
In 2013, after a judge found him guilty of embezzlement, Mr. Navalny was freed after his supporters pushed for his liberation in demonstrations outside the Kremlin. Since then, Mr. Putin has grown less tolerant of dissent, analysts say. At the same time, Mr. Navalny has become a more powerful political force with international standing, raising the stakes around street protests.
The decision to halt the protests reflects concern in Mr. Navalny’s inner circle over the effectiveness of bringing people out to protest week after week.
In neighboring Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko —an ally of Mr. Putin—has been facing months of protests by demonstrators who say the election he won last August was neither free nor fair. Belarusian authorities have detained thousands.
Mr. Navalny’s team watched as mass protests played out there to no effect, Mr. Volkov said.
Mr. Putin “learned from Lukashenko that you can beat people very, very, very painfully and still hold on to power,” he said. “It was an election that drove people into the street in Belarus. For us, our election is still ahead of us.”
In the coming months, Mr. Navalny’s team will instead follow a two-pronged strategy. The movement, which has gained prominence through online exposés of wealth and corruption in Kremlin circles, will help European authorities identify stolen assets and laundered money in the European Union.
At home, it will focus on the ballot box and promote Mr. Navalny’s strategy of identifying and supporting viable opposition candidates in races across the country to chip away at United Russia’s numbers.
“We should redirect the great anger and dissatisfaction that has accumulated ahead of elections and use it” against United Russia, Mr. Volkov said.
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Although Mr. Putin isn’t a member of United Russia, the party has stood behind his policies, including backing a constitutional amendment that would allow him to remain in power for years to come, as well as supporting laws that tighten internet freedoms and limit free speech in Russia.
The voting tactic, which Mr. Navalny has described as “smart voting,” has had mixed results in the past, and last year his efforts in local elections saw gains in only a handful of regions. But Mr. Volkov said increased visibility of the opposition together with rising discontent will help “rip United Russia to pieces.”
Some supporters were disappointed by the discontinuation of protests, though others said the movement can bide its time.
“There are pluses and minuses, people’s emotions will cool now, but if we’re really focused on parliamentary elections, it’s too early to start pushing for change now,” said Andrey Neyman, a 45-year-old entrepreneur in Kaliningrad who had joined the protests. “We can wait till it’s May and sunny again.”
The explosion of public anger against the Kremlin has come at a time when Mr. Putin is pondering his own political future. A raft of new laws and constitutional amendments last year have given him the possibility of remaining in power until 2036.
“The Kremlin was hoping for the support of the people to make this transition as easy as possible,” said Nikolai Petrov, senior research fellow at Chatham House, a think tank. “Navalny has ruined Putin’s gambit.”
Since he returned to Russia last month, the protests gave Mr. Navalny and his group greater exposure in a country where state television either ignores him or derides him as irrelevant.
But data from independent pollster Levada last week showed that national attitudes toward Mr. Putin hadn’t changed significantly over the nearly three-week period since protests began.
Sociologists say that while trust in him as a president has dipped slightly, his approval rating is unlikely to fall below 60% given the broad political apathy among much of the population.
Whether or not Mr. Navalny and his team can chip away at that passive support is key to the future of their movement.
“The resources at the disposal of the Kremlin and the opposition are totally unequal, and so Navalny’s people must use every advantage they have to outplay the Kremlin,” Mr. Petrov said. “And here their advantage is the ability to quickly outmaneuver the Kremlin, which has become increasingly inert.”
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