By jailing a popular opposition leader, Vladamir Putin risks enflaming protests that have already begun to accuse him of rigging last weekend’s vote. Here’s the story from the New Yorker:
The problem for Putin’s government is that, unlike the other two hundred and ninety-nine or so people arrested, Navalny is as close to a real celebrity as the Russian opposition has. He is also the one coherent, galvanizing, and viable figure among them. Despite his flirtations with nationalists, he is a brilliant political tactician and ad man: within three months of his coining the meme “party of crooks and thieves” to describe the ruling United Russia, one third of Russians polled said they identified United Russia as crooks and, yes, thieves…
But if the Kremlin’s goal was to discredit Navalny and hobble his meteoric rise, they’ve done the opposite. Last night, hundreds of people protested through the night in front of one of the police precincts where, it was rumored, he was being held—trying to force the police to let his lawyer in to see him. At four A.M., nearly four thousand people were watching a live-stream video from the protest, which a supporter was beaming from the police station. In the meantime, Navalny tweeted cheery pictures from the police van and the holding pen, at least until his phone died or the police took it away. A video appeared of him in his cell, penning an official complaint—his favorite tactic.
Thousands protested last weekend’s election that confirmed United Russia, Putin’s party, had held onto a majority in government, albeit a smaller one than he has been enjoying for several years.
Russia is experienced with protests like this, and there are no signs of the tension or a coup that led to Yeltsin’s big moment atop the tank outside the (Russian) White House in 1991. I happened to be in Russia at that time, and will never forget the crowds marching through the streets, the cobblestones pulled out of the roadbeds and piled into barricades blocking traffic in the streets, drunken soldiers firing machine guns from the back seats of trucks, and the thump, thump, thump as the Russian White House where parliament sat was shelled.
The election was a blow to Putin’s pride and prestige, but the fragmented opposition is no threat to his rule — unless missteps and overreactions on his point galvanize the public. His enemies cannot throw Putin out of office, but the prime minister’s blunders and those of his supporters might conceivably do the trick.