RIGA - Russian society is dissatisfied with the country's economic and political situation, as well as with its fight against Covid-19, Marcis Balodis, a researcher at the Center for East European Policy Studies, said, commenting on the protests that took place throughout Russia on Saturday.
He also noted that the public activity shown was somewhat surprising, as Russia had "tightened its grips" over the past year, putting various obstacles to both the protests and their organization.
The researcher admitted that, given the public dissatisfaction, the arrest of Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny, as well as the video he released about a palace built for Russian President Vladimir Putin, have served as a catalyst. This, in turn, has mobilized the public to take to the streets.
Balodis drew attention to the fact that the protests also showed slogans that have no direct connection with Navalny - many were generally directed against the Russian political elite, the state authority or Putin himself.
According to the expert, in order for the protests in Russia to be able to achieve something in the long run, the protests must be larger, take place longer and cover several regions. Protests also require leadership or a specific person, a group of people, to take the lead in the process, including a clear definition of what the protesters are advocating for. According to Balodis, the division of Russia's political elite is also necessary, for at least one of the domestic political groups to join the protesters.
"In the absence of such factors, I think that protests will not only make it difficult, but also unlikely to bring about a fundamental change in Russia's political attitude. The Kremlin is currently taking a wait and see approach how the situation will develop and whether the public will once again take to the streets," said the expert.
Asked if the Kremlin is not worried that the Belarusian scenario could be repeated in Russia, Balodis said that the example of Belarus shows that the regime can survive despite active public protests.
He noted that the protests in Belarus have not completely disappeared, the public is in the mood to demonstrate against the regime, but no fundamental changes have taken place in Belarus' domestic politics. Nor have the demands of the people which took to the streets been met.
"This is a lesson that the Kremlin has not missed, namely that the regime is able to survive if there is domestic political unity and the power structures remain loyal to the regime," Balodis stressed, noting that there is no absolute unity in Russian society, the demonstrations are too small and they are not supported by the domestic political elite or part of it. Thus, the regime is able to survive despite the fact that people are taking to the streets and demanding change.
Regarding mass detentions, the researcher noted that the authorities' reaction was largely related to another lesson learned from Belarus - removing people from the protests as soon as possible who are either leading them or capable of leading them, it is possible that the protests could die down sooner, which is why the authorities' reaction in Russia was so sharp and aimed at direct confrontation.
The researcher also stressed that the rule of law is being used against the protesters in a way to slander them within society, saying that it is a small group of hooligans who are breaking the law because the protests have not been approved.
Speaking about the position of the Baltic States, Balodis noted that it was quick and decisive. According to him, small countries are highly dependent on the observance of international norms, values ??and principles within global politics, and what is happening in regards to Navalny in Russia directly affects these principles.
"If sanctions are considered to be intensified, especially against certain individuals, this could lead to a split in the domestic political elite. If such sanctions are imposed on specific individuals and pressure is exerted, the country's political elite could start becoming more obliging to the protesters and look for compromises in regards to the situation surrounding Navalny," said the researcher.
According to him, it is also important to talk about the common readiness of the whole European Union to take such a decisive step, because, as was observed in August and September, when information about the attempt to poison Navalny appeared, achieving political unity was much more difficult. In addition, the inauguration of the new US President, Joe Biden, should be taken into account. Balodis drew attention to the fact that Biden has already worked on issues in the Baltic region in the past and that his more aggressive attitude towards Russia will probably give further considerations in resolving internal EU issues.
Speaking about how the situation could develop further, Balodis noted that there were skeptical speculations last week as to whether the protests would take place at all. On the other hand, if preparations for this weekend's protests begin, it is likely that various mechanisms will be put in place in Russia to disperse the protests in some way as soon as possible.
To discredit the protesters, accusations appear in the Russian media that most of the protesters were minors encourage by adults to take to the streets. At the same time, however, there may be calls for a reconciliation of society, a conciliatory approach so that the desire for protest in Russian society disappears, trying to break the unity that is encouraging the protests.
"The mood is to protest and the protests are unlikely to run out in the coming weeks. Another factor must be taken into account, namely what will happen after February 15, when the 30-day arrest for Navalny ends. It could be a catalyst for a new wave of protests or at least the continuation of protests," said Balodis.