Is Russia’s future Belarus’s present?

The biggest wave of protests in years has swept Russia, raising hopes that popular pressure will persist and intensify, gradually eroding an autocratic regime, as is happening in neighbouring Belarus. But we should be wary of allowing the two countries’ similarities—which include history and language, religion and repression—to obscure profound differences.

In Belarus, protests erupted in August 2020, after President Alexander Lukashenko—Europe’s longest-serving leader—rigged yet another election, supposedly beating his opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, in a landslide. In Russia, the spark was the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny upon his return to Russia after recovering from what was almost certainly a Kremlin-ordered poisoning. The protests strengthened after Navalny was hastily sentenced to more than two years in a prison colony.

But that’s where the similarities end. For starters, Navalny isn’t nearly as popular in Russia as outside observers seem to believe. Western media reported Navalny’s arrival in Moscow with the same excitement that accompanied Russian Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s return to his homeland 27 years ago. Among Russians, however, Navalny’s trust rating is just 5%, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent polling agency.

By contrast, President Vladimir Putin’s trust rating is 29%. While that’s an all-time low for Putin, the difference is difficult to ignore. It may be rooted in the perception among ordinary Russians that palaces are more presidential than prisons. As independent analyst Alexei Levinson told the Moscow Times, ‘In Russia, being in power automatically translates into trust and legitimacy.’

Contrary to the West’s expectations, Navalny’s approval rating has remained practically unchanged since September. After the protests and the sentence, disapproval of Navalny increased to 56% (compared to 50% in September). Of course, under authoritarian regimes, people can be too scared to respond truthfully even to methodologically correct surveys.

But not in Belarus. In a survey commissioned by Chatham House, only 18.6% of Belarusians admitted to voting for Lukashenko in last August’s presidential election, compared to over 50% for Tikhanovskaya.

This may explain why the protests in Russia have been so much smaller than those in Belarus. Russia’s largest demonstration, in Moscow, attracted some 40,000 people. The largest protest in Minsk—with just one-sixth the population of Moscow—attracted half a million, and every week for 10 weeks, between 100,000 and 200,000 people took to the streets, despite brutal repression. Belarusians continue to protest to this day. Ultimately, Belarus has a mass opposition movement without a leader, and Russia has an opposition leader without a mass movement.

Moreover, Navalny is fighting something very specific: corruption. Putin positioned himself as a kind of policeman by subjugating the oligarchs and capitalising on the memory of the lawlessness of the 1990s. In fact, he was with the bandits, and he remains Russia’s de facto king of thieves. Intent on exposing this reality, Navalny recently released a viral video showing an opulent palace by the Black Sea that he says belongs to Putin.

But whereas Russia ranked 137th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2019 (tied with Liberia, Paraguay and Papua New Guinea), Belarus ranked 66th, just behind Slovakia, and ahead of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania—all members of the European Union. And Belarus has especially little in the way of ‘meta-corruption’—that is, privatisation. In Belarus, the largest firms remain state-owned—a fact that appeals to a Kremlin eager to expand its current oligarchs’ domains.

With so much less meta-corruption, Belarus doesn’t really need a Navalny. Instead, it needs a Tikhanovskaya, who, as a young English translator-turned-homemaker, is like any other ordinary Belarusian: being subjugated by a totalitarian system. Tikhanovskaya is, in the late Vaclav Havel’s words, ‘a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth’. She is thus the rival Lukashenko needs.

Navalny is the rival Putin needs. But, if he is to gain the kind of popularity Tikhanovskaya enjoys in Belarus, he will need also to satisfy another demand of Russian voters: nationalism. After all, in Russia, nationalist sentiment is among the strongest in Europe. (In Belarus, it is the weakest.)

Navalny has often expressed views that are popular among Russian nationalists. For example, in 2014, he said, ‘I don’t see any kind of difference at all between Russians and Ukrainians.’ And, despite acknowledging that the annexation of Crimea violated international law, he said: ‘The reality is that Crimea is now part of Russia’, and added: ‘Crimea is ours.’

In fact, Navalny’s nationalism has sometimes strayed into far-right territory. For example, he has argued that the issue of illegal immigration is ‘100 times more important’ than anything happening in Ukraine, and called for the introduction of visa requirements for migrant workers from former Soviet states such as Uzbekistan.

Navalny has also endorsed a nationalist-led campaign called ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’, which seeks to end federal subsidies to the governments of Chechnya and other North Caucasus republics. And, in 2011, he participated in the nationalist ‘Russian March’, whose slogans included ‘Russia for Russians’ and ‘End the occupation—freedom of the Russian nation!’

But in reality, Navalny is not so much a nationalist as a politician. In his 2016 book Opposing forces: plotting the new Russia, written with the Polish dissident Adam Michnik, he explained that he went along with the far right because ‘they supported the idea that everyone should have a choice’, and ‘stood for reform of the judiciary and media independence’. Yes, ‘their statements are often terrifying’, he noted, but ‘I still believe that we need to have a dialogue with them.’

In any case, a protracted Navalny-led protest movement akin to that in Belarus is unlikely to arise in today’s Russia. Putin may well lose power one day. But if he does, he will lose it à la russe. Russians can acquiesce passively to absolute power, and then suddenly turn their backs on a leader who just yesterday was a god. Russia doesn’t know compromise—just like Navalny.