Compared to last Saturday, it is more difficult to determine how many people took part in today's protests as a result of the atomization of the protest rally in a number of smaller groups, especially in the big cities.
According to the first Sociological Surveys from St. Petersburg conducted by Alexandra Arkhipova, Alexei Zakharov and Belyi Schetchik [Бeлый Cчётчик | Twitter: @WhiteCounter | Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WhiteCounter], for 17 per cent of the protesters it was their first protest, for 30 per cent it was their first protest in 2021. The protest is young: over 87% are between the ages of 18 and 46. 33 per cent are aged 18-24; 25-35 years are 42.5 per cent, 12 per cent are aged 36-46 and 11 per cent are over 46. Contrarily to state media claims, only 1.5 per cent are minors. The picture of the protest in Moscow looks similar. For 13.6 per cent of the protesters, it was their first protest, and for 25 per cent, it was their first protest in 2021. Compared to the protesters in St. Petersburg, the protesters in Moscow are only slightly older: over 80 per sent are between 18 and 46 years of age. 24 per cent are 18-24 years of age; 25-35 years of age make up 42 per cent, 13 per cent are 36-46 years of age, 11 per cent are 47-57 years of age and 8.3 per cent are 57 years of age. Contrarily to state media claims, only 1.7% are minors.
Apparently, protest activity has increased in some regions and has decreased in others. Nationally, protest activity seems to be weakening, but the protest is transforming and taking on a new quality.
In the run-up to the protests, the Russian leadership apparently opted for a very tough power transit option, taking extensive preparatory action, conducting house searches, and initiating countless criminal proceedings. All this in the hope of keeping protest activities to a minimum.
There is no doubt that the large contingent of police and national guards testifies to the political leadership's desire to instill fear, to set an example through brutal action and to discourage participation in future protests. However, there is clearly, if not yet, a great deal of concern on the part of the authorities. Otherwise, weeks of massive state propaganda would have been hard to explain.
The authorities acted much more violently today than they did last Saturday (e.g. used tasers and tear gas). The willingness of the authorities to use violence has not been so high for decades, but the willingness of some groups of protesters to escalate has clearly increased.
Paradoxically, the harsh actions against the protesters are primarily a signal to the heterogeneous elite groups, an appeal for consolidation around Vladimir Putin. The basic idea here is that no one in the elites should waste any thought of taking the side of the protesters, not even indirectly. After the investigative reports of the past weeks, the Russian leadership seems to be clearly assuming a leak or an inside job.
The bad news for the Russian leadership is that the actions against Alexei Navalny were only the trigger for the protests, but not the deeper reason for them. Navalny is now an important (but no longer the only) symbol of protest.
As far as the population is concerned, the harsh approach leads to the exact opposite of the original objective: the more repressive the authorities act, the less feared people appear to be. The protest is gradually escalating and involves larger and larger social groups.
Protests are slowly reaching a new quality; they are becoming more self-organised, more flexible, and in this they are showing a certain parallel to Belarus. The authorities are also surprised by the new flexibility of the protest.
The vast majority of the protesters are not Navalny's supporters. "Freedom for Navalny!" is just one of the many slogans of protest and at the same time remains the only concrete demand. The protesters sing, "We are not afraid!" "Putin - thief!" "Russia will be free!" "Down with the Tsar!" and the word of the day, "Aqua-Discotheque!" It is precisely in the latter that the lowest common denominator of the protest is most clearly stated. Although the protest is national and cross-generational, it is socially and ideologically heterogeneous and expresses people's displeasure at pervasive corruption, state arbitrariness, lack of legal security, in short, the general dissatisfaction of the population with the overall situation. However, the protest does not offer a clear alternative to the status quo, and at the same time therein lies its strength and weakness.
The day of the court hearing on the transfer of a suspended sentence to a prison term against Navalny on Tuesday, 2 February, at 10 a.m. (Moscow time) is crucial. If Navalny is sentenced to 2.5 years in prison, the reactions to it will determine the future of the protest movement. A prison sentence is very likely, but not entirely certain. As things stand, house arrest or similar measures are entirely possible; the Kremlin is likely to make a decision on this in the next 48 hours.
Despite certain parallels, the protests in Russia are hardly comparable to those in Belarus. The vast majority of the population is still apolitical. The silent majority of the Russian population [may be called Putin's de facto majority] is relatively indifferent to the scandal surrounding Putin's palace, as well as other scandals. Most of them will be satisfied with the official statements made by the Kremlin and the state media, at least as long as the social situation remains reasonably stable.
Much will depend on the behavior of the Russian leadership. If the Kremlin continues to cling to the narrative of the "besieged fortress" and the image of an outspoken protest (à la Alexander Lukashenko) and if the proverbial domestic screws are further tightened, the gap between those in power and the population will widen. A lot more people will take to the streets next time, especially if the social situation of the population deteriorates, as is already becoming apparent.
Today's statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation can be taken as evidence of a widespread "besieged fortress" mentality within the leadership. Thus, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs today spoke of the clearly established involvement of the United States in Russia's internal affairs and of active support for calls for protest.
February, 2nd, is going to be crucial.
And yes, game changes are always possible.