Weekly 18 July 2020

Biggest regional protests in 10 years

Hello! This week our top story is on a wave of protests: large ones in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk and smaller ones in Moscow. We also look at the bad blood between opposition leader Navalny and some prominent independent journalists, and a series of #metoo allegations in the media industry.

Rolling protests in Far East after governor arrest

Last week saw a series of high profile arrests, this week came the protests. Most significantly, there were big demonstrations over multiple days in the Far East city of Khabarovsk after the detention of local governor Sergei Furgal. There were smaller protests in Moscow.

  • Khabarovsk has seen daily protests this week, but the biggest took place Saturday, the first weekend after Furgal’s arrest. Somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 people took part, or 5 percent to 10 percent of the city’s population. If Moscow saw a similar turnout, there would be a million people on the streets — this last happened in the 1990s. The Khabarovsk protests have passed off without arrests (as a rule, the authorities are afraid to break-up such big gatherings). The rally Saturday was the largest protest outside of Moscow in a decade, political analyst Grigory Golosov told The Bell.
  • Furgal is officially accused of organising the murder of several businessmen in the early 2000s and, from social media posts, it appears that people in Khabarovsk have few illusions this may be entirely false. It is difficult to imagine a businessman in the Far East in the early 2000s who didn’t have ties to criminality. The protests are not being driven by Furgal per se (though he is a smart public politician), rather a feeling of having been insulted. In 2018, Furgal beat the candidate from the ruling United Russia party in a shock election result. “They have interpreted the attack on the governor as a personal attack, as an attack on their rights,” said political expert Abbas Gallyamov.
  • The authorities are doing everything possible to shut down the protests. While the Kremlin looked for a replacement for Furgal, the FSB announced it had prevented a terrorist attack in a “crowded place”, and the local sanitation authorities identified a steep rise in coronavirus cases and proposed a new lockdown. At the same time, hackers broke into Furgal’s Instagram, which has 321,000 followers (one quarter of Khabarovsk region’s population), depriving the arrested governor’s press team of access to the account. The authorities previously accused the press service of encouraging protests.
  • Whether or not the authorities have been able to crush the protests will be clear this weekend — the next demonstration is planned for 18 July.

There were also multiple reasons to protest in Moscow this week, but these demonstrations were poorly attended, many times smaller than Khabarovsk.

  • Journalists gathered Monday at a Federal Security Service (FSB) prison in support of their colleague Ivan Safronov who was accused of treason earlier this month. Although police usually treat journalists carefully, 18 people were arrested. Everyone who held up a poster or wore a t-shirt with the slogan “Free Ivan Safronov” was detained.
  • A protest involving several hundred people took place Wednesday in downtown Moscow against amendments to the constitution, which were recently approved in a referendum. About 100 people were arrested.
  • Finally, police arrested 10 people picketing Friday in front of FSB headquarters. They were protesting the so-called New Greatness case in which the FSB helped create a supposedly radical youth group, and then prosecuted its members. Under Russian law, a solitary picket is the only form of protest not requiring a permit from the authorities. Before the coronavirus outbreak, such protesters were never arrested. Now, however, the police call them a ‘hidden public event’ and detain everyone.

Why the world should care

Protests in Russia’s regions are extremely rare and the demonstrations in Khabarovsk — over 5,000 miles from Moscow — are rapidly becoming a major challenge for the Kremlin. The light-touch policing shows how wary the authorities are of provoking an escalation.

Navalny ramps up fight with independent journalists

The most discussed topic on Moscow social media this week was a spat between opposition leader Alexei Navalny and top investigative reporter Ivan Golunov. The disagreement is the latest battle in a long-running conflict between Navalny and a group of prominent journalists. Navalny alleges that many journalists have an inflated opinion of themselves, that they only care about their own, and that their profession is outdated.

Disclaimer: one of the journalists mentioned by Navalny in his recent attack on Golunov was Liza Osetinskaya, the founder of The Bell.

  • The initial argument started because of the Ivan Safronov case. Two days after Safronov’s arrest, Navalny called for his release on a YouTube livestream, but was critical of his articles, and the fact that he went to work for state-owned space corporation Roscosmos. In other words, of Safronov’s decision to go and work for the same people he had once tried to expose.
  • Navalny’s attack on a person in prison who couldn’t respond appeared unethical, and drew criticism from Safronov’s colleagues. One of those most virulent in their objections was Golunov, who shot to prominence last year after a huge public campaign saw him released from prison where he was being held on false drug charges. Golunov posted a list of blog posts by Navalny and his team that were written using material from Safronov’s articles, and called on Navalny not to have greater respect for the media.
  • Navalny replied Thursday in a long blog post that he used to rip apart Safronov’s publications, calling them Roscosmos press releases, and allege Golunov was a liar and a terrible writer. In response, Golunov accused Navalny of using journalists as political pawns, and published some of his own correspondence with Navalny from two years ago in which the opposition leader praised one of Golunov’s articles but said it should have been published earlier to reduce United Russia’s rating ahead of elections.
  • It was clear to most that the bitterness in this exchange comes from Navalny’s disdain for traditional journalism. For this reason, Navalny is sometimes compared with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, who also have no love for the media. There was no winner in this public debate: both participants damaged their reputations. The level of mutual trust left between Navalny and opposition-minded journalists is fast approaching zero.

Why the world should care

Both protagonists in this fight have valid points to make. But the personal attacks are unedifying, perhaps particularly for someone who would like to be the next Russian leader.

Journalists named in new #metoo accusations

A new #metoo campaign on Twitter this week was led by female journalists working at independent media outlets who described sexual assault and harrassment they suffered at the hands of fellow journalists. State-owned media happily gave the story lots of coverage.

  • All the accused belong to progressive circles. They include Sergei Prostakov, editor-in-cheif of exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s MBK Media; Ruslan Gafarov, who has worked for a host of opposition-minded publications; and a veteran presenter on liberal TV station Dozhd, the openly gay Pavel Lobkov.
  • Prostakov and Gafarov (who now works for Sberbank) both resigned. Dozhd promised to investigate the allegations against Lobkov, but there was no talk of resignation.
  • The situation was a hot topic for discussion on state television networks, where other victims also came forward — for example Lesya Ryabtseva, who works at RT and alleges she was assaulted by her former boyfriend, opposition politician Ilya Yashin. It was also used as an opportunity to remind independent journalists about allegations against the editor-in-chief of liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, Aleksei Venediktov, and the editor-in-chief of leading independent media outlet Meduza, Ivan Kolpakov, and repeat the charge of hypocrisy (opposition-minded journalists were outspoken in their calls for punishment for Leonid Slutsky, the parliamentary deputy accused in 2018 of assault by several women in what was Russia’s first #metoo scandal).

Why the world should care

Arguments over #metoo usually divide on ideological and generational lines and Russia’s opposition initially thought #metoo would be a way of discrediting the authorities. The reality has been very different.