Leading Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was poisoned on Aug. 20, 2020. After recovering in Germany, Navalny returned to Russia this year and was imprisoned, after which the authorities launched an unprecedented crackdown on the political movement he has led since the late 2000s. Navalny faces more than two years in prison, and probably longer: Russian law enforcement opened new criminal cases against him and his team this month.
The crackdown may not seem surprising, as investigations by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation have alleged extensive corruption among the political elite, including Russian president Vladimir Putin himself.
Since 2019, Navalny and his team have coordinated “Smart Voting,” a tactical voting project to mount electoral challenges to United Russia, the Kremlin-backed “party of power.” And the protests headed by Navalny, meanwhile, often rang with chants of “Russia without Putin!”
But as our new book demonstrates, the current wave of repression marks a shift from the Kremlin’s earlier policy toward Navalny, and toward opposition more generally. Russian authorities previously relied on their control of information to stifle criticism, but are now using brute force more to stamp out political challenges and critical voices, including in the media.
Why has the Kremlin become more aggressive? Here’s what our research reveals.
Putin is shifting toward ‘overt’ dictatorship
Social scientists Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman developed the concept of “informational autocracy.” Contrary to overt dictatorships, which rule by fear and repression, informational autocracies tend to use propaganda, not purges, to manage society, persuading the population of their competence and legitimacy.
Concealing information about the ruling elite’s shortcomings is particularly important. If propaganda and secrecy can hide incompetence and corruption from the public, then costly overt repression is less necessary.
Operating as an informational autocracy meant the Russian regime relied heavily on muting opposition voices, without officially censoring independent journalism. For example, the board of the business daily Vedomosti appointed a Kremlin-friendly editor in chief, prompting a number of editors to quit in protest.
But government efforts to battle foreign-hosted social media, especially YouTube, have proved trickier. Navalny and his allies used this platform to circulate videos documenting their investigations into officials’ yachts, mansions and private jets. Its most sensational video, “Putin’s Palace,” released on Jan. 19, made allegations linking the Russian president to a sprawling estate overlooking the Black Sea.
Recent developments suggest that the Kremlin has moved from “informational” to “overt” dictatorship. A likely reason was the regime’s failure to control the flow of information produced by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, with investigations moving ever closer to Putin’s own interests. One poll found 26 percent of adult Russians had seen “Putin’s Palace” within a few days of its publication. Although Putin denied the video’s claims, the extent of repression against Navalny and his movement increased markedly after its release.
Guriev himself has expressed doubts about Russia’s status as an informational autocracy, stating “… we may already be seeing Russia’s return to the repressive dictatorship of the 20th century.”
Navalny returned as the ‘informational dissident’
Why did Navalny return to Russia, aware that he would probably be imprisoned for many years? It has been increasingly difficult for the political opposition to challenge Russian authorities via institutions like elections and parliaments. In light of this, Navalny has tried to produce glaring examples of the regime’s authoritarian nature.
Two examples jump out. In the 2018 presidential election, Navalny campaigned to run against Putin, despite the slim odds of getting his name on the ballot — unsurprisingly, election officials barred him from running. And in 2021, Navalny forced Putin’s hand by returning to Russia and apparently leaving the regime no option other than to imprison him, ostensibly for violating the parole conditions related to a sentence originally handed down in 2014.
Navalny’s return was, therefore, a radical way to produce information about the nature of the regime. The aim was to show the Russian population the extent of corruption in the system — and that this system deals with challengers by locking them up.
The future looks bleak for Navalny — and for the Kremlin
What’s the likely future of Navalny’s anti-corruption movement? Authorities have long thwarted efforts by Navalny’s team to register as a party, leaving the movement dependent on the leadership of one charismatic individual — Navalny himself. Navalny and his supporters also used regular protests to draw attention to corruption and inspire new followers, as we show through a series of interviews.
With Navalny in prison, his organizations banned for alleged “extremism” and the possibilities for protest in Russia drastically reduced, Navalny’s movement as it existed until the beginning of 2021 will probably not return. Some of the regional heads within Navalny’s network have already left the country.
But while the Kremlin’s crackdown may yield success in the short term, the reasons people chose to support Navalny in the first place have far from disappeared. Many Russians want greater political competition, an independent judiciary, a fairer economy and an end to corruption. The Kremlin won’t find it easy to eradicate these underlying grievances.
Moreover, as our research shows, most of Navalny’s supporters are not hardcore fans, but see him as an instrument to achieve change. With Navalny locked away, people may find other instruments and channels for their opposition to the current political system. And if this makes the movement more diverse, it could be more dangerous to the Kremlin in the long run.
Elections for the State Duma will take place in mid-September, and United Russia’s approval levels are very low. Realizing the threat Navalny’s movement still poses, the Kremlin has blocked all websites associated with Navalny.
But — true to form — Navalny’s team has responded by promoting its “Smart Voting” app to access the blocked content. This is the latest twist in the game of cat and mouse between Navalny’s movement and the authorities in the battle for information in Russia. With the shift in the Kremlin’s approach to the opposition implemented since Navalny’s return, the September polls will give a further glimpse into the balance of power between the “overt dictator” and the “informational dissident.”
Jan Matti Dollbaum (@JanMattiD) is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bremen.
Morvan Lallouet (@m_lallouet) is a PhD candidate in comparative politics at the University of Kent.
Ben Noble (@Ben_H_Noble) is assistant professor of Russian politics at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.