Putin critic Navalny jailed as mass protests ‘energize Russian opposition’


A day after Russia saw its largest wave of unsanctioned protests in years, opposition leaders on Monday cheered the turnout as a sign of widespread dissatisfaction with President Vladi­mir Putin. The question now is how authorities will respond to the show of defiance, David Filipov and Andrew Roth report for The Washington Post:

In Moscow, the architect of the rallies, anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, was ordered jailed for 15 days and fined $350 on two charges, including refusing to obey police. He was among more than 1,000 people taken into custody after police and protesters clashed around the epicenter of the demonstration, a statue to the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. ..Navalny’s Moscow office, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, was ransacked by police, who took away computers and other equipment, according to his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh.

Navalny has been jailed for 15 days for resisting police orders during the mass protests, the BBC reports, but other members of his Anti-Corruption Foundation are being charged with extremism.

Navalny said Russians would keep protesting for “as long as people see tens of billions of dollars being stolen by top officials”.

“You can’t detain tens of thousands of people,” he said. “Yesterday we saw the authorities can only go so far.”

Before sentencing, Navalny tweeted a defiant selfie from court, writing: “The time will come when we will have them on trial (but honestly),” The Guardian adds.

The protests show opposition leader Navalny remains a force, The Economist notes, adding that the scale and the geographical scope of the demonstrations surprised many observers:

Analysts and sociologists have long insisted that widespread unrest is unlikely: 83% of Russians say they would not participate in political protests, though only about 50% believe that the country is heading in the right direction, according to the Levada Centre, an independent pollster. But polls may be a poor indicator of the nation’s mood, especially in Russia’s regions, where the downturn has been felt especially acutely. For many who attended Sunday’s marches, exasperation seemed to have overcome apathy and fear.

There were approximately 1,000 detentions in Moscow – the highest ever, observers reported, at least on a par with October 4, 1993 (when the Duma was stormed and commentators warned of civil war) and the Bolotnaya protests of 2012.

The protests occurred across the country, notably in many provincial towns, attracting citizens concerned about elite corruption and drawn to Navalny’s central message – namely, that corruption = poverty and a change of government would therefore mean less corruption and less poverty.

The protesters were very different in three ways than their predecessors who took to the streets in 2011-2012 – differences which should give the Putin regime pause about the future, says analyst Paul Goble:

  • First of all, the protesters were far younger yesterday than those of 2011-2012 and far more likely to be people who had not taken part in protests before or been among the “celebrity” demonstrators such marches have often attracted….
  • Second, the protesters are far angrier than they were and far more likely to be against something such as the political system and its corruption as a whole than for anything in particular be it a politician like Aleksey Navalny or a non-Russian cause …
  • And third – and this reflects both the first and the second – protesters were far more apocalyptic in their views, talking about their sense of hopeless about the future and the notion that there is no way out if the current system is not radically transformed.

The catalyst for the protests was a report produced by Navalny which showed that Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russian president between 2008 and 2012, uses a network of charities run by close associates to hide his control of assets including mansions, yachts, and even a vineyard, The Telegraph notes. The video outlining the claims (above) has received over 12 million viewings on YouTube.

Thousands turned out for separate rallies in Russia’s largest cities, from Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea to Volga River cities in central Russia to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, the organizers said.

Protests spread beyond middle class

In a first for Russia’s opposition movement, largely moribund since the police crackdown against the protests five years ago, protests spread beyond the Muscovite middle class to more than 80 cities across the country, The FT adds:

Several thousand people protested in prosperous cities such as St Petersburg, where police detained more than 50; in Krasnodar in southern Russia, where police detained more than 200; and Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, where police arrested several dozen. Demonstrations were even held in Makhachkala, a province battling a jihadist insurgency in the north Caucasus that regularly delivers returns of more than 90 per cent for Mr Putin at the ballot box. Police detained 156 protesters there, organisers said.

Credit: NY Times

Navalny’s focus on corruption particularly resonated with young people – a demographic that is struggling under Russia’s economic stagnation and high unemployment – and brought them into the streets in large numbers, political analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told Al Jazeera.

“Now the authorities have to think what to do about that: most likely there will be a combination of kind of placating from one side and going and putting a lot of people behind bars,” said Felgenhauer.

The authorities are uncertain over how to respond to the resurgent opposition — either through a full crackdown, or by trying to appease critics with steps to make the presidential elections more open, said Igor Bunin, the head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies.

“Probably they will stick to a middle path,” Bunin said by phone. “For now, Putin isn’t personally at risk but we don’t know how far public consciousness will develop as it’s clear that dissatisfaction will increase.”

Troubling civil society crackdown

“Detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers, and journalists is an affront to core democratic values. We were troubled to hear of the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny upon arrival at the demonstration, as well as the police raids on the anti-corruption organization he heads,” the U.S. State Department wrote in a tweet.

“This crackdown is another indication that the space for civil society is rapidly closing inside Putin’s Russia,” said Senator Ben Cardin, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is not surprising that the Russian government’s blatant corruption and culture of impunity have caused such a widespread and loud reaction from Russian citizens nationwide.”

The democracy watchdog Freedom House said the protests had “targeted corruption that has mushroomed under the authoritarianism of President Putin and his government, which showed their intolerance of dissent by declaring the protests illegal.”

“Russia under Putin has created the template for modern dictatorships by taking control of the media and demonizing the independent voices that remain, treating civil society as a threat to the state, and trying to suppress the fundamental right to speak freely and to protest without fear of arrest,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, the group’s president. “Putin’s would-be admirers and apologists should recognize him as a model of authoritarianism and a grave threat to fundamental freedoms.”

Russia is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2017, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2016, Not Free in Freedom on the Net 2016, and receives a democracy score of 6.5, on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 as the worst possible score, in Nations in Transit 2016.

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