The growing pressure on Russia from Europe every day does not lead to support for street protests and a wave of discontent among Russians, as well as to mass opposition demonstrations, no matter how much we would like to. Sanctions, support for the street opposition, and public threats against Moscow are having the opposite effect: the Washington-fueled protest`s have completely failed, Russian society has become even more united, and the so-called protest leaders have been completely discredited. How did it happen and where is the path to establishing partnership?
In an effort to achieve their foreign policy goals, Europe and the United States are sometimes taking strange and inconsistent steps that hardly fit into the logic of political realism and pragmatism. The most obvious example is attempts to establish a direct dialogue with Russian civil society and the opposition, under which Washington and European capitals traditionally consider the non-systemic liberal opposition and its main person, Alexei Navalny.
Let’s say that even if the West is really trying to establish contacts with Russian civil society, bypassing the state, the choice is strange at least. This is clear to anyone who lives in Russia or can analyze the most superficial sociological data on the political preferences of Russians. Unfortunately, European and American diplomacy step on the same rake from year to year: they invent convenient Russian “public opinion leaders”, rely on them, inflate them in the media and show them as the main opponents of the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, for Russians, Alexei Navalny is a well-known personality, but hardly as popular and authoritative as it is customary to judge outside Russia. He made a name for himself as an instigator of mass protests. After last year’s high-profile events, his fame increased only in the Western media. After voluntarily returning from Germany in February 2021, Navalny was sentenced to almost three years in prison.
Did the imprisonment of Navalny add political points, did mass protests occur throughout Russia over his detention, does the Russian population support this “prisoner of conscience”? All of these questions can be answered unequivocally – no. At a certain stage, the leaders of the regional cells of the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation called for open street violence and illegal actions, for which, quite reasonably, the entire network of cells was declared extremist. However, most of the leaders eventually fled abroad. After that, instead of students, specially trained activists began to participate in the protests, and sticks, stones and special equipment began to be used against the rather tolerant police. This may have played a key role in the loss of popular support by the liberal opposition.
Instead of mass protests, information campaigns on social networks, boycotts and non-violent actions, which are quite possible and acceptable in Russia, we see support for Navalny only by those who, for one reason or another, are outside Russia: the fugitive oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, American and European NGOs, by supporters of Navalny who fled to the United States, in foreign media, and now also at the official level. Inside the European Parliament, the daughter of an oppositionist, Darya, was awarded with the prestigious Andrey Sakharov human rights award “For Freedom of Thought” just a month ago. The award was presented personally by the head of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, and was accepted by her colleague Leonid Volkov and daughter Daria. Without hinting at anything, let’s imagine for a second that in the Kremlin, in a solemn atmosphere, an award is presented to one of the organizers of the “yellow vests” protests in France or relatives of the detained American Republicans who stormed the Capitol a year ago. This is hardly imaginable even given that the support of the Yellow Vests or the Republicans is far greater than the support of Alexei Navalny in Russia.
Despite everything, protests in support of Navalny will be held in many cities. Here is the complete list. In the United States, in January of this year, actions in support of Navalny and against the “dictatorial regime of the Kremlin” will be held in seven metropolitan areas: Denver, Boston, New York, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. In Europe – in Norway, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Czech Republic, Switzerland and Spain, as well as in five other cities in Australia and Georgia.
You do not need to be an international expert and specialist on Russia to understand that one of the main political lines that is massively supported in Russian society is the strengthening of sovereignty, the return to the global geopolitical arena and the desire for a parity dialogue with Western countries. Will foreign actions in support of Navalny give him more credibility in the eyes of Russian society? Of course not, and Western leaders have begun to understand this too. Therefore, already now they are looking for a worthy replacement for Navalny, who is of little interest in Russia itself, and various awards are rather an international human rights courtesy. Over the past twenty years, the West has not been able to feed its own or support a loyal pro-Western opposition leader in Russia. Russian society, after the difficult 90s, seems to have developed a strong immunity to the means of information warfare and Western “soft power” in general.
We can see same rake again and again: they invent “heroes” for themselves, invest in their support, and as a result we get the complete opposite. Looking, as they say in Russia, at “support from across the ocean,” the Russians will rally even more strongly around Vladimir Putin, and ordinary Europeans will, as always, reap the economic and political consequences of the break with Moscow. Mr. Navalny himself probably does not realize, but foreign curators have already sent him into retirement. He might be glad to play some kind of adventure, to play the main opponent of the authorities, but for Washington and Brussels he is already a waste material. They are already looking for a replacement for him, most likely – the same in quality and level of support in society, because there are simply no other liberal oppositionists in Russia.
It seems absurd, but the consequences of American adventures and demonstrative hostility of the European Union will in any case reap ordinary European taxpayers. The continuation of the policy of ultimatums, sanctions and support for imaginary heroes will hit EU exports, the hydrocarbon market and the positions of European business in general in equal measure.
Is it in our interests? Isn’t it time to somehow reconsider the vector of public diplomacy of the European Union and replace the record of the requiem for the Russian opposition with something more cheerful?