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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained by police on Sunday as he was en route to an unauthorized protest rally in Moscow. He is expected to be charged with a violation of public order, and this minor charge carries a punishment of 20 days in jail.
The hype around this story is bigger than the story itself. China’s Xinhua news agency reports that over 5,000 people attended the scheduled rallies across Russia today. However, taking that in context it is not very impressive. The Moscow rally was probably one of the larger ones, with about 1,000 people turning out on Novii Arbat and / or Tverskaya Street in the center of Moscow to walk past the “Russian White House” and throw snowballs at it while yelling slogans like “Putin is a thief!”
This is an opposition campaign that applied for an event in Moscow that would have expected some 15,000 people, but very few came.
ABC News tried to make something out of the Navalny story but admittedly wasn’t able to spin it up much because nothing much happened. To many American media people, Navalny is targeted as the ‘sign of dissident hope’ for Russia because he is highly critical of Putin and is thought of as ‘the presidential candidate that should be allowed to run.’ He cannot because he carries a suspended prison sentence for the conviction of corruption on his legal record, and such a criminal record is not allowed for candidates for presidency in the Russian Federation.
Navalny contests this as a “politically motivated” conviction and he called for Russian people to boycott the upcoming March 18th elections. He does have a fair number of people interested in him, and he can motivate them, but they are far from the numbers that a real movement would have to carry to be successful in Russia. This is taken as fodder by the Western media to suggest that President Putin’s rule is authoritarian, and the spectre of Soviet repression is an easy tool to handily use by the West to demonize Putin and to lift anyone that opposes him – regardless of their actual merit.
While President Putin does often face a skeptical view by many Russian people, their skepticism does not yet go so far as to point out a better candidate for the Presidency than he is. The more cynical of the Russian people sometimes opine that Mr. Putin is good for the job, and the job is good for him, and although no great things are happening, nothing bad is either, so it’s fine. Others, most notably many devout Orthodox Christians in the country, are highly supportive of the three-term president as he heads for his fourth term.
An interesting story that must develop over the course of 2018-2024 when the next presidential election arises, is who will appear as an appropriate successor to Vladimir Putin? His impact on Russian life is significant, and he does carry an 80 percent approval rating, enhanced if anything by the US sanctions and his patient, strong and dignified response to them. The opposition candidates have so far not been able to mount a real resonant complaint against Putin, but they use the elections to try to advance and develop their own party platforms. At present there are six parties represented in the federal Duma (Parliament), with Putin’s United Russia party as dominant.
Anyone who succeeds President Putin will have to be a strong leader. Russia does not work as easily as the USA might in a representative democracy. The country’s infrastructure is broken pretty badly still now, though it is improving, but the biggest force that hinders movement appears to be a sense that one cannot really expect to defeat, much less transform, the old Soviet mentality of “grab whatever you can right now” into a true national movement. There is a lot of effort made in this area to inspire the Russian people, who do truly love their home, but much of that is movement that happened under President Putin’s leadership, and so there is no willingness to replace what has been working as well as it has for as long as it has.