Putin tried to smash his opposition but protests have spiraled

Putin tried to smash his opposition but protests have spiraled
Copyright 2019 CNN

It’s been a heady summer for Russia’s embattled political opposition. On August 10, as many as 50,000 people rallied in Moscow calling for fair local elections, the biggest protests seen in the capital since early 2012. Now opposition leaders are calling for a protest on August 31, hoping to build on the momentum of Moscow’s summer of discontent.

So who are the protest leaders, and what is their goal?

Alexei Navalny is the most recognizable Russian opposition leader. In late July, ahead of unsanctioned protests, he was jailed amid a roundup of opposition figures ahead of unsanctioned demonstrations on July 27 and sentenced to 30 days for allegedly violating protest laws. While in custody, he was hospitalized with an “acute allergic reaction.” His physician suspected poisoning by an unknown substance.

Navalny was released from jail on Friday, but while he was inside another activist has emerged as a leading opposition voice: Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and activist with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund. Sobol recently ended a month-long hunger-strike after election officials refused to allow her onto the ballot in upcoming municipal elections; she was also detained and subsequently released ahead of an August 3 protest.

Initially, the protests centered on those municipal elections, which are scheduled for September 8. Moscow’s election commission has barred a number of independent and opposition candidates from running because they had failed to obtain a sufficient number of signatures to be allowed to run. Opposition activists say the authorities are using administrative measures to block true political competition.

But the protests have now taken on a different rationale: They have become a response to the wide-ranging crackdown on opposition activism. The slogan for the upcoming protest is “against political repression.”

The response of the authorities to weeks of protest has been telling. In addition to the detention of leading opposition figures, police have made sweeping arrests of demonstrators. According to OVD-Info, a monitoring group, more than 2,000 people have been detained in recent large protests, both at unsanctioned marches and on the sidelines of legally sanctioned demonstrations.

Carrots and sticks approach

Footage of those arrests has spurred much of the outrage. One video that went viral showed a Russian riot police officer punching a woman in the stomach on August 10, the day of a sanctioned protest. Days before that protest, the Moscow prosecutor’s office said it was seeking to strip an unnamed couple of their parental rights for bringing a baby to the July 27 rally.

Authorities have taken other legal measures. The Investigative Committee, a top Russian law-enforcement body, opened a criminal case against Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund, saying it was initiating a criminal probe of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund, or FBK, over alleged “financial transactions with funds known to be acquired by other persons by criminal means.”

The Investigative Committee alleged that Navalny’s non-profit, which investigates official corruption in Russia, received money from third parties as part of money-laundering scheme. (Navalny and his supporters say such cases are politically motivated.)

Russian lawmakers have also weighed in. The Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, ordered the creation of a special commission to probe “foreign interference” in Russian elections amid the wave of opposition protests.

And local authorities have carrots, as well as sticks, to deter protests. The Moscow city government organized two last-minute street carnivals that appeared timed to lure Muscovites away from protests (including one barbecue-and-music festival on August 10, dubiously titled “Meat and Beat”).

At this stage, it’s hard to gauge where the protests are heading. After the massive turnout on August 10, demonstrations the following weekend were a more subdued affair. That protest involved “solo pickets” — individual protesters holding signs in downtown Moscow to avoid arrest for participating in an unsanctioned gathering.

But even modest protests can have an effect. Earlier this summer, Russian authorities dropped criminal charges against prominent investigative reporter Ivan Golunov after a fierce public backlash. The Kremlin, however, does not seem disposed to make concessions to the opposition.

Asked on Monday about the recent arrests, Putin was adamant: Russians have a right to free assembly, within limits.

“Neither the authorities nor any groups of citizens have the right to violate the law and carry the situation to the point of absurdity or cause scuffles with the authorities,” he said in a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron. “This is against the law, and all who committed these violations have to be held accountable under the Russian law.”

Put otherwise: Putin is unlikely to see the upcoming protest as a legitimate expression of political grievance.