Opposition is indispensable in a democracy, and unacceptable in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He has decided he no longer needs the thin veneer of legitimacy offered by the barest minimum of tolerance. This week thousands marched to demand the release of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as doctors warned that his life was in imminent peril due to his hunger strike over prison mistreatment, which he ended on Friday. On Monday, a Moscow court will rule on the future of his organisation using secret evidence. If – as many anticipate – it finds that his Anti-Corruption Foundation and regional political headquarters are extremist, then funding or even being involved with them would become a criminal offence, bearing fines and long jail terms. Most of Mr Navalny’s key aides are already detained or have fled. Lower-level activists know they face a choice between prison or keeping their heads down.
The crackdown is a perverse tribute to the resilience of the movement that has endured during Mr Navalny’s near-fatal novichok poisoning, his jailing on trumped-up charges when he courageously chose to return to Russia, and his appalling and dangerous mistreatment in prison. It has not only highlighted eye-watering corruption, but embarrassingly exposed the operations of the security services. Its success threatened to normalise opposition. Above all, Mr Navalny’s bravery showed that it was possible to defy the president. Mr Putin’s ruthlessness is showing that no one should try.
He cannot tolerate opposition because he cannot command public enthusiasm. His state of the union address this week underscored that he has nothing new to offer his country. It offered some handouts to assuage the very worst effects of its economic woes, and the usual warnings to the west not to cross Moscow’s “red lines” – upping the ante with a warning of an asymmetric response to interference with its core interests: Ukraine, Belarus and domestic politics.
He seeks to frighten others into compliance as he threatens his own people. On Thursday, Russia said it was withdrawing its troops from Crimea and the border regions of Ukraine, which had seen the biggest military buildup since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, according to the US. While there is relief at the withdrawal, the exercise has sent the desired message to both Kyiv and Washington, as Mr Putin gets the measure of a US administration that is not only less erratic in its approach to Russia, but also, fundamentally, less interested.
Earlier this month, Mr Putin signed into law constitutional changes allowing him to maintain power until 2036, when he will be 83. No one had believed that he was contemplating his eventual retirement: he and his cronies have too much to lose. While the president’s personal ratings have slid, along with support for his United Russia party, many do not see an alternative, or fear a return to the turmoil of the 90s or worse. As he tightens the screws, his country is moving into a new phase where survival and endurance, rather than galvanising the public, are likely to be the opposition’s priority. But Mr Putin cannot outlaw dissatisfaction. And if the opposition must give way for now, it is not giving up.