Why would the Kremlin have taken the political risk of eliminating Alexei Navalny?
In my opinion, the initiative did not come directly from Vladimir Putin. He has distanced himself from current affairs and only focuses on issues that matter to him: geopolitics, the army, defense issues, history … He has delegated to the FSB (security services) the charge of the so-called non-system opposition. FSB agents used instruments they know well against “enemies of the state”, namely physical elimination or confinement. They are not worried about the elections, the reputation of Russia, the repercussions on the population.
The authorities decided to send Alexeï Navalny to prison upon his return, putting an end to the reprieve attached to the sentences to which he had been sentenced. How to explain this change in attitude?
The attack on the FSB, then its return to Moscow, was provocative in the eyes of the Kremlin. Prison was the only option. It has become a matter of principle: the opponent must be punished, humiliated, destroyed. Everyone needs to know the cost of attacking this pillar of the regime, the FSB. No one inside the Kremlin has dared to ask questions about this course of action, especially since, since 2018, the senior officials in charge of political questions in the presidential administration no longer manage the Navalny file. This is the exclusive responsibility of the security services.
In his latest film, Alexeï Navalny goes directly to Vladmir Putin, making fun of his supposed luxury tastes. How, according to you, did the person concerned experience this moment?
His administration undoubtedly spared him by showing him only a few “important” extracts … It is often said that Vladimir Poutine feels threatened by Alexeï Navalny, but this is not true. He thinks the population strongly supports him. Neither the film, nor the actions of Alexeï Navalny can hurt him. On the other hand, he is convinced that the investigations published in the newspapers are fed by the secret services of Western countries and that Navalny is an instrument in this fight. He associates himself so much with the state that an attack on him becomes an attack on Russia. He is on a mission, he only has to report to history.
What will be the impact of Alexeï Navalny’s film?
The film, which has been viewed by tens of millions of Russians, heightened social unrest. One in six Russians say they have adopted a negative opinion of Vladimir Putin after watching it, according to a Levada poll published on February 8. Its voters vote less and less by membership and more and more for fear of destabilization. Russian society is traumatized by the crisis of the 1990s and therefore prefers a predictable government to “dubious” political forces, which the propaganda undertakes to disqualify. But discontent grows in the face of declining living standards and social injustice. The gap is widening between the population and the authorities, who no longer speak the same language.
Does power seem able to contain the protest?
The Kremlin is expected to step up social spending in the coming months, in order to lower the discontent, while maintaining a harsh crackdown on the Navalny team. But the opposition in Russia is not just Alexey Navalny. Care must be taken to watch for cracks within traditional political parties like the Communists and Liberal Democrats. Some of their members criticize the pro-system line and become more radical. In addition, local disputes are increasing.
Do you see any dissension within the ruling elite?
There is clearly an erosion of the regime. Important players are starting to ask questions in business circles. In 2019, Sergei Tchemezov, head of the public conglomerate Rostec, felt that it was a mistake to ban the opposition from the elections. For part of the elite, squeezing opponents without mercy presents greater risks in the long term than letting them participate in the electoral game. Another camp thinks on the contrary that the opposition outside the system threatens the state.
Vladimir Putin seems to have chosen.
Previously, Vladimir Putin was the demiurge of the system. But today, the system also influences Putin, who has become a product of it. He isolated himself. He feels more comfortable being surrounded by those who share his anti-liberal and anti-Western views. It is too close to siloviki (the security forces) and feeds on their vision, to the point of locking themselves in this world of conspiracy. An institution like the FSB has grown considerably and it is through it that it learns about many issues. The more time passes, the more the regime hardens.