Putin’s Popularity Slumps As Navalny Calls Fresh Protests

Jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny is stepping up his battle with President Vladimir Putin, calling fresh mass protests this weekend as the Russian leader’s popularity slumps.

Putin’s confidence rating fell to 53%, according to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation from Jan. 22-24, straddling the day tens of thousands of Russians rallied in cities across the country demanding Navalny’s release. That was the lowest the Foundation, which frequently works for the Kremlin, reported since it started asking the question in that form in 2013, according to its website.

“You can’t scare the tens of millions of people who have been robbed by the authorities,” Navalny told a Moscow Region court Thursday via video link from the jail where he’s currently in detention for 30 days. “I’m glad to see that more and more people see that the law and the truth are on our side, and that we are the majority.”

Putin’s Popularity Slumps As Navalny Calls Fresh Protests

Authorities are already warning against participation in Sunday’s protests and most of the Navalny aides who weren’t already in prison were picked up this week, facing a range of criminal charges. Still, they’re worried by the scale of the demonstrations and looking for ways to cool popular discontent that has been simmering amid slumping incomes and coronavirus restrictions, three people close to the government said.

Putin’s Popularity Slumps As Navalny Calls Fresh Protests

‘An Avalanche’

“Navalny set off an avalanche,” said Evgeny Gontmakher, a prominent Russian economist. “People were already unhappy with their incomes falling and the pandemic.”

The Russian leader, 68, has been in power for more than two decades, the longest rule since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. In July, Putin pushed through constitutional changes that would allow him to stay as president until 2036. His support last year dropped to a record low amid the Covid-19 lockdown, but recovered a bit by November, according to the Levada Center. He’s survived several previous waves of anti-Kremlin protests, steadily tightening restrictions on public demonstrations.

Putin’s Popularity Slumps As Navalny Calls Fresh Protests

Navalny, 44, was detained Jan. 17 upon returning home from Germany where he recovered from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he and the West blamed on Putin’s secret service. His imprisonment drew Western calls for his immediate release, including an appeal this week in a phone call from U.S. President Joe Biden.

Putin’s Popularity Slumps As Navalny Calls Fresh Protests

After years of largely ignoring the anti-graft activist in public, the Kremlin has begun trying to refute his allegations. Earlier this week, Putin denounced the protests as “dangerous” and dismissed claims in a video released by Navalny that he owns a giant $1.3 billion Black Sea palace. The clip has more than 100 million views.

Late Wednesday, police detained Navalny’s brother Oleg and two allies, Lyubov Sobol and Anastasia Vasilyeva, for 48 hours on suspicion of violating anti-Covid 19 restrictions. Prosecutors Friday asked a Moscow court to put them under house arrest.

They also opened a criminal case in absentia against one of the opposition leader’s top aides, Leonid Volkov, alleging he encouraged minors to participate in the unsanctioned protests. Volkov, who is now outside Russia, denied the allegations. The opposition leader himself is accused of violating probation under a suspended sentence while recuperating from the August attack in Germany. He faces a 3 1/2 year prison sentence at a Feb. 2 hearing.

Putin’s Popularity Slumps As Navalny Calls Fresh Protests

The harsh response of the government reflects concern that the demonstrations are far more widespread than in the past, said Natalia Zubarevich, head of regional studies at Moscow’s Independent Institute for Social Policy. Still, she expects them to fade as previous ones have. “They’ll blow off steam and get tired of it,” she said.

Pavel Malyi, a prominent investment banker who was among the protesters in Moscow a week ago, said a sense of injustice is galvanizing people. “Basic rights need to be respected,” he said. “I want to be able to look my children in the eye.”

Putin’s Popularity Slumps As Navalny Calls Fresh Protests

The challenge posed by Navalny has fueled tensions within the political elite. While one person close to the Kremlin said the authorities must act to reduce social tensions, another official said there is pressure for a hard line that will only worsen dissatisfaction and bolster Navalny’s appeal.

Surveys ordered by the Kremlin are showing growing recognition and support for Navalny, especially among young people, according to a person familiar with the numbers, which aren’t public.

Navalny’s ally, Volkov, said Thursday’s ruling keeping him in jail showed opponents to Putin have no other option but to keep on demonstrating. “The street has to have the final say, there’s no other way,” he said on Twitter.

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