Will Arresting Navalny Backfire on Putin?

During Monday’s Russia Day protests, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested in Moscow while attempting to attend a rally he organized. Navalny publicly questions the legitimacy of the current regime, and has said he will stand against President Vladimir Putin in 2018 elections .

What effect will Navalny’s arrest have on the security of the regime? Repressing dissent through state actions such as strictly regulating protest and selectively targeting opposition leaders like Navalny may or may not secure Putin’s position. On one hand, repressing protests mitigates threats to regime survival in the short term. On the other hand, repression may backfire and increase the threat to regime survival either through international condemnation, defections of regime loyalists, or increased protest activity in the medium term to long term.

Putin’s regime is secure enough to repress political opposition without triggering adverse effects. Through the United Russia party organization, the Putin regime has secured the loyalty of political and economic elites who are the most important members of the selectorate. Dissenting elites were exiled or imprisoned early in Putin’s tenure, further preventing regime defections in the event of mass nonviolent protest.

However, because Russia maintains t he window dressings of democracy, it cannot indiscriminately repress nonviolent protesters à la the Communist Party of China in Tiananmen Square. While the state engages in preventive repression – making potential protesters “self-censor” and decide not to participate – Russia’s imperfect social control means observed dissent will occur more frequently. The state then reacts with moderate but not severe repression to maximize its chance of survival (with the exception of warlord-led regions like Chechnya).

With its high level of political control and medium levels of social control, the Putin can repress protests through clamping down on civil society and targeting opposition leaders without suffering domestic backfire. International condemnation, however, is a threat which has only increased since Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. The regime has responded to the threat of sanctions by encouraging – licitly and illicitly – pro-Russian opinion, policy, and politicians in the West. Russia won’t be more condemned by the West than it already was after invading Ukraine, so deploying this information campaign carries relatively little risk for the regime’s survival.

The most severe threat to Putin’s survival, however, is the long-term effect of selectively repressing opposition leaders. Rather than deter future protest activity, arresting and jailing key opposition figures may increase their and their networks’ future participation in protest. Further, jailed opposition leaders have the opportunity to learn from their experience with the regime. Upon their release, they enhance the resilience of opposition movements in what one political scientist dubs the “phoenix effect” of state repression.

In this way, Putin may turn Alexei Navalny into another Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment increased his calls for Putin’s removal in the Western media. Ever-swelling ranks of battle-tested, resilient opposition leaders that have withstood Russian repression may sustain a protest movement capable of taking down the regime.

In the short run, however, don’t expect anything more than rhetorical backlash against Navalny’s arrest from domestic opposition and Western media. Putin will again successfully tighten the screws on dissent in his increasingly authoritarian regime.

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