Moscow protests take center stage for Russia’s next act

Police block a street during an unsanctioned rally in the center of Moscow on July 27. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

By Will Englund August 8, 2019 (washingtonpost.com)

MOSCOW — The election protests that have shaken Moscow this summer are focused solely on local issues, but they tap into frustrations that reach throughout Russia.

That presents President Vladimir Putin with a challenge different from any he has faced before.

The demonstrations — demanding that opposition candidates be allowed to run for city council in September balloting — take place after a year of various protests around the country.

Rallies against pension cutbacks, against the destruction of a park in Yekaterinburg, against the dumping of Moscow’s garbage in the sub-Arctic Arkhangelsk region are part of a thread of discontent that forms the context for the marches in Moscow.

Another major protest is planned for Saturday in Moscow. Other gatherings in solidarity are set for various cities across Russia. But the confrontation in the capital is the big event and one that will set the stage for the next act nationwide.

That could be to embolden Putin’s critics after an opposition victory in Russia’s biggest city. Or the Kremlin may end up serving notice to its critics by defeating the Moscow protesters at the hands of baton-wielding police, whose mass sweeps have placed more than 1,500 protesters in temporary detention over the past weeks.

Protesters clash with police during an unsanctioned rally in Moscow on July 27. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

“It’s still a very, very local phenomenon,” said Konstantin Gaaze, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “But it’s huge, because Moscow is huge.”

The demonstrators, he said, seek to build on the lessons of those other, somewhat successful protests elsewhere. “If you are pushy enough, you can get what you want, or you can get something at least,” he said.

The last time Moscow saw large continuing protests was in 2012, following a rigged parliamentary election and Putin’s return to the presidency. They were expressions of anger without a concrete goal, in contrast to what’s happening now. Putin successfully cast himself as the president of the “real Russia,” as opposed to the sophisticated urban liberals of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“In 2012 the authorities were able to split the opposition from the rest of the population,” said Aleksei Mazur, a political commentator in Novosibirsk. “This time we haven’t seen that yet.”At least 600 people were arrested, an independent monitor says, at an unauthorized protest in central Moscow Aug. 3, calling for free elections. (Reuters)

‘Fire under the earth’

Still, it’s not as though all Russians have been riveted by events here so far.

The national television channels have provided little coverage, and what has been shown has generally portrayed the protesters as “hooligans” or worse.

Denis Volkov, of the independent Levada polling organization, said that data on public opinion regarding the protests is scanty. A poll in July that posed an open-ended question about issues of concern to Russians found that 3 percent mentioned the Moscow demonstrations.

In the city itself, according to a Levada poll released Wednesday, 37 percent of respondents said they supported the protests while 27 percent did not.

But even if the rest of the country isn’t paying close attention now, what happens in Moscow will inevitably embolden one side or the other in the months to come.

“It’s like a fire under the earth” waiting to erupt, said Andrei Kolesnikov, also of the Carnegie Center.

Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny speaks during a July 20 rally in Moscow in support of opposition candidates in the Moscow City Duma elections. (Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The political organization set up by Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, has sought to hold solidarity rallies in cities around the country on Saturday. Navalny himself is serving a 30-day jail sentence that will keep him from taking part.

“Moscow is a kind of a marker,” said Yevgeny Karpov, who heads the local branch of Navalny’s organization in the city of Belgorod, south of Moscow near the Ukrainian border.

Refusing to allow independent candidates to run is typical for almost every Russian city, he said. His group asked for a permit to hold a rally in central Belgorod in support of the Moscow protests on Saturday, but it was denied. Instead members of his group will engage in “single-picketing,” a protest involving one person at a time that is permitted by Russian law.

Aleksei Navalny in 2018. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

“We want to show that we exist,” Karpov said. “We want to demonstrate that we do not have to go to Moscow to express our discontent. And — very important — to show solidarity.”

The authorities, he said, “ignore us and give us humiliating reasons not to have a rally. They think they can get away with this. And this is typical all over Russia.”

In Tyumen, in Siberia, Navalny’s political organization did receive a rally permit. It will be limited to 50 people, and no sound system will be allowed, said Ivan Vostrikov, the Navalny campaign coordinator there.

Vostrikov said the use of force against protesters in Moscow has galvanized his group. It shows that the authorities “are not used to talking to us; they always pretended that we didn’t exist.” Now, he suggested, they don’t know how to get talks started.

On Thursday, police raided the Moscow office of a different Navalny organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, and the homes of several of its officers. Later, they froze the foundation’s bank accounts. The actions came as part of an investigation into allegations of money-laundering and tax evasion, which Navalny’s associates dismiss as unfounded.

After the protests began in Moscow, authorities in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, surprised the opposition by agreeing to allow an independent candidate, Sergei Boiko, to run for mayor.

“It’s a very important stage,” Mazur said. Novosibirsk has its own issue at the moment: forest fires that have devastated huge swaths of eastern Siberia, and the smoke that has choked the downwind city’s residents.

“The fires are huge,” Mazur said, and the government response has been lacking. “So now it’s political. It’s No. 1 on the agenda.”

Tougher line

As in 2012, the protesters in Moscow are from the generally comfortable middle class.

The issue is not about economics for them, noted Gaaze of the Carnegie Center. But the rest of Russia has experienced five years of gradual economic decline, and with that has come an erosion in trust for the authorities. Environmental issues — including the proposed garbage dump in Arkhangelsk and the fires in Siberia — are also coming to the fore.

“The cycles are not vicious, but they are happening,” Gaaze said.

Heavy smoke covers the center of eastern Siberian city Chita on Aug. 1. (Yevgeny Yepachintsev/AP)

The mass detentions and violent crackdown by the police over the past two weekends are also a departure from the relative restraint of the past. “It shows nervousness and weakness,” said Alexander Kynev, an independent analyst in Moscow. “It looks like hysteria. If you’re hysterical, you’re not strong.”

The authorities through their response have managed to unite the opposition, which is virtually unprecedented for Russia, he said. That in itself, he added, is a moral victory.

“I believe that the damage the authorities are doing to themselves is huge,” Mazur said.

On Wednesday, the Moscow prosecutor’s office asked a court remove a 1-year-old boy from the custody of his parents, Olga and Dmitry Prokazov, on the grounds that they had brought him to last Saturday’s protest and handed him over to a relative who was trying to escape the notice of the police.

The government’s own human rights officials denounced the request. “From a legal point of view, it is stupid, but essentially this is obviously intimidation,” Alexander Verkhovsky, of the presidential human rights council, told the newspaper Vedemosti.

Kolesnikov called the heavy-handed response “a new page in the development of Russian authoritarianism.” It naturally provokes a reaction, he said: People are tired of being humiliated, and they seek “a revolution of dignity.”

Will EnglundWill Englund is a veteran Moscow correspondent and an editor on The Washington Post’s foreign desk. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is the author of “March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution.” Follow 

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