Society 25 January 2021

Russia rocked by nationwide protests in support of Navalny

Demonstrations Saturday in support of detained opposition leader Alexei Navalny were the biggest protests to go ahead without an official permit for many years. An estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people turned out in Moscow, and overall up to 100,000 were on the streets in about 100 cities. Over 3,000 people were arrested — another record — but there was no evidence of the kind of widespread police brutality that might trigger public outrage.

The build-up

A Moscow court arrested Navalny for 30 days Monday after he returned from Germany (where he recovered following an attempted nerve agent assassination likely orchestrated by the Russian security services). His supporters immediately called for protests, and released a video accusing President Vladimir Putin of corruption and showing details of a Black Sea palace allegeld built on his orders. Within four days, the video accrued over 70 million views.

  • Key members of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund were arrested Thursday on charges of calling for illegal protests.
  • The police visited the homes of hundreds of opposition activists, independent journalists and other people who had publicly revealed plans to attend the rallies. They were all given written warnings about the consequences of breaking the law.
  • Internet watchdog Roskomnadzor demanded internet platforms delete posts calling for people to take part. Russia’s biggest social network, VKontakte, along with TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube all published warnings after they were threatened with fines of up to 10 percent of their Russian earnings. Roskomnadzor reported Friday that VKontakte and YouTube deleted 50 percent of their “illegal posts”, while TikTok removed 38 percent and Instagram 17 percent.
  • Police warned they would treat protests as ‘mass public disorder’ that, under Russian law, could see organizers jailed for up to ten years and participants for up to eight.
  • Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin urged the city’s residents to stay home and highlighted the risk of coronavirus infections.

The TikTok Factor

A big issue for both sides was the expected involvement of large numbers of schoolchildren inspired by TikTok posts. Tags linked to the protests received over 200 million views on the platform. All the while, state-owned media and online propaganda outlets drummed home their message that the opposition was trying to use kids as ‘human shield’ at the rallies.

School teachers handed out brochures to parents detailing the consequences of participating in unsanctioned protests. The leaflets even made it into kindergartens – an acquaintance of one of The Bell’s editors shared a link shared by a teacher at his three-year-old’s Moscow pre-school.

However, neither side was capable of reliably predicting the impact TikTok might have on the protests. “Nobody knows to what extent a viral wave on TikTok will translate into a wave of people on the streets. This will be a first, vital experiment,” Leonid Volkov, a colleague of Navalny’s told independent outlet VTimes on the eve of the demonstrations.

What happened

Reporters for news agency Reuters estimated the number of demonstrators in downtown Moscow on Saturday at 40,000, while crowd counting organization White Counter put turnout up to 20,000.

  • Protestors gathered in the central Pushkin Square, and police straightaway began making arrests. Even official figures, which typically underestimate the true numbers by a factor of four or five, say that 4,000 people gathered on Pushkin Square.
  • About an hour after the start of the rally, protestors attempted to march to the Kremlin walls, but police blocked their path and protestors dispersed across the downtown area. In several places there were violent clashes at police roadblocks.
  • The country’s second biggest demonstration took place in St. Petersburg, but the most notable development was the spread of the protests into dozens of regional cities where the opposition is traditionally weak. At least 111 rallies took place – and these are just the ones where human rights activists collected information about arrests. About 110,000 people across Russia took part, according to anti-Kremlin outlet MBKh Media. Making this a genuinely nationwide protest was the biggest success of Navalny’s team.
  • A total of 3,068 people were arrested, according to information Saturday evening. That number is likely to increase, but it is already a modern record. There were dozens of reports of police using truncheons or kicking people to the floor, and protestors responded by throwing snowballs and, on occasion, plastic bottles. The authorities said 42 security officials were injured. Despite the scuffles, the police response cannot be described as brutal — at least according to Russian standards.
  • Criminal proceedings have already begun against some participants. At least 12 cases had been launched by Saturday evening, three of them in Moscow. After similar such street demonstrations  (in 2012 and 2019), several dozen people were jailed for multi-year terms.
  • Photos from Saturday’s protests can be seen here and here. Some of the most interesting video footage is collected here by independent outlet Meduza.

Key takeaways

  • A widely-predicted increase in the number of high school students among protestors failed to materialize – reporters at the scene unanimously reported that there were no more young demonstrators than usual.
  • Only about 25 percent of those protesting across Russia were in Moscow — this is highly unusual (Muscovites usually dominate in nationwide demonstrations).
  • Judging by the behavior of the security forces, the Kremlin is trying to avoid triggering a process of radicalization: of course, some protestors were assaulted, but the crackdown generally took place without conspicuous brutality (particularly when compared with events in Belarus in fall last year).
  • Opposition sentiment seems to be spreading. Business people are, as a rule, publicly apolitical, but at least a dozen well-known businessmen — usually loyal to the authorities — publicly announced their participation in Saturday’s events. Admittedly, this is a tiny number, but it could be very damaging for the authorities if it were to grow.