Aleksei Navalny’s rallies of protest against Putin’s fourth term as president were predictably ruthlessly suppressed by riot police in Moscow and several other Russian cities. A total of 1,600 persons were detained, including 704 in Moscow (among them Mr. Navalny) and 229 in St. Petersburg. Among the detainees were protesters as well as passersby. Journalists were priority targets as the authorities tried to reduce media coverage to a minimum. There were also high school students who were quickly released. Protest rallies took place also in Chelyabinsk, Yakutsk, Tolyatti, Krasnodar, Astrakhan, Krasnoyarsk, Kaluga, Kaliningrad, Novokuznetsk, Belgorod, Samara, Vladimir, Voronezh, Tver, Barnaul, Penza, Blagoveshchensk, Kurgan, Kemerovo, Rostov-on-Don, Yekaterinburg, Tomsk, and Irkutsk. In most cases, the rallies were not sanctioned by local authorities.
Apart from the police, Aleksei Navalny’s demonstrators were confronted by vigilantes, members of the NOD (Russ. abbrev., National Liberation Movement) headed by the scandalous State Duma member Yevgeny Fedorov (United Russia Party), including a number of servicemen who had taken part in combat operations in the course of Russia’s aggression in Donbas. People sporting Russian Cossack and DNR and LNR uniforms had gathered on Pushkin Square in Moscow before the Navalny rally. All wore Cossack lambskin hats despite the unusually high temperature for early May (+24ºC). Poor arrangement on the part of the Presidential Administration or lack of funds or time to supply summer uniform. Some of NOD activists were also detained, but then quickly released without any police precinct paperwork. The protesters were attacked under the slogans “No Revolution! No Maidan!”, “Traitors, Go to America!” and “For Fatherland! For Putin!”
Apart from the usual Saint George ribbons, the NOD activists sported T-shirts with “Putin Is Our Tsar” printed up front. In fact, should Russia be gripped by a large scale crisis, there would be little NOD could do about it, even though the movement’s leadership insist that its membership reaches 165,000 (most likely an overstatement, considering the amount of subsidies from the Kremlin and allied businessmen). NOD operations on the largest reported scale have involved between several hundred and one or two thousand vigilantes – a drop in the ocean compared to the Russian police and National Guard. On the other hand, such ruthless suppression of peace protest rallies spells further damage to what little (if any) is left of Russia’s international reputation, reminding one of the Black Hundreds and pogroms there, back in 1905.
According to various estimates, the Russian opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny, had 1,500 to 10,000 supporters take to the streets in Moscow; 2,000-3,000 in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, and 3,500 in Chelyabinsk. However, even the maximum possible number of protesters constituted no actual danger to the regime. Putin and his inner circle would be scared only if tens, nay hundreds of thousands of Muscovites would take to the streets to voice their protest against his [very likely] lifelong presidency – the way it happened in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Before the Navalny-organized rallies in Moscow, a rally of protest against cyberspace restrictions and blocking Telegram gathered over 12,000 in the Russian capital. The authorities didn’t seem to mind in order to let the masses blow off steam. Also, the Russian political elite is divided on the Telegram issue. The most technically advanced there realize that doing this is technically impossible; also, that the Yarovaya Bill was passed without taking into account the current Internet realities – that completely blocking Telegram and other messengers would be theoretically possible only by building a wall between Russia and the world website (following China or Iran’s example). The Kremlin is not prepared to take such a radical step, although many believe that the Telegram incident is part of arrangements being made for a total blockade of the Internet in Russia. This explains why so many people took part in a rally to defend Pavel Durov’s brainchild.
The Kremlin regarded Mr. Navalny’s rallies warily in light of the recent events in Armenia. Even though everybody knew that his rallies would never take place on the same scale, there was Nikol Pashinyan’s movement and fear takes molehills for mountains. That was why the Kremlin decided to use its newest weapon, NOD, to help disperse the rallies. Come to think of it, there is a positive aspect to the matter for the Russian opposition. Mr. Navalny, seeing the way those “Donbas Cossacks” and riot police were manhandling the protesters, could change his public stand on Donbas, if not on Crimea, and call for stopping support for the separatists, and for withdrawing Russian troops from the region.
The big question is whether such large scale peaceful protest rallies will be possible in Russia, in the foreseeable future, the way they are possible in today’s Armenia. Considering current realities, the only answer is a definite no, primarily because Russia lacks a national idea capable of uniting one and all, as well as because its law-enforcement and security agencies have long ceased to be part of the people. Mr. Navalny believes the slogan “Down With Putin, Oligarchs, and Corruptionists!” could serve as a unifying idea. This slogan is close and understandable to tens of millions of Russian nationals, but he is unable to convince them to openly confront the authorities, taking to the streets and exposing themselves to riot police batons’ blows. This would take a different positive slogan that would easily explain how the masses could build a happier future in Russia after Putin. Mr. Navalny’s key idea is taking money away from the oligarchs and giving it back to the ordinary people. Without a specific redistribution mechanism, this is nothing other than populist demagoguery and people are aware of this.
Unlike Armenia, the Russian police have long sensed their superiority over the man in the street. At the same time, they are afraid of the masses and thus always prepared to cruelly suppress any public manifestations. Russia’s political realities are like a bad never-ending dream that can be interrupted only by a crisis and collapse of power structures. This crisis could most likely take place due to external factors and the increasing incompetence of Vladimir Putin’s team. Rallies of protest could speed up this process but never launch it.
Boris Sokolov is a Moscow-based professor