Anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny was arrested by riot police on January 28 as he walked to join nationwide protests against the upcoming presidential elections.
Thousands of ordinary Russians braved icy winter temperatures and possible arrest to attend small anti-election rallies across the country. Some of the protests had been officially sanctioned but most had not.
The largest protests in Moscow and St Petersburg were not sanctioned and buses of riot police had been sent into the cities to control the crowds.
Navalny played cat and mouse with police ahead of the rally in Moscow that started at 2pm local time. Police surrounded his home and raided his offices in central Moscow in an effort to shut down Navalny’s live online broadcasting of the protests from round the country. However, they couldn't find the opposition activist himself, who responded to a police request by giving President Vladimir Putin’s official residential address.
Once Navalny appeared on the streets of Moscow to make his way to the rally he was quickly spotted and bundled into a police bus by riot police.
“I’ve been detained. It means nothing,” Navalny tweeted from the bus, urging people to go to the protests anyway.
The crowds were relatively small, with only a few hundred turning up in some cities before being dispersed by the authorities. In Moscow journalists on the scene estimated the crowd to be 1,000 people strong. But the fact of the protests will unsettle the Kremlin.
Navalny applied to stand in the elections slated for March 18, but was disbarred by the Central Election Committee on the grounds that he has a criminal conviction, though his supporters claim this was politically motivated.
Even if he were allowed to run, Navalny only enjoys 2% support in the polls against Putin’s 80% popularity rating. Nevertheless, Navalny spent the summer touring the country and has touched a nerve with regular Russians who are unhappy with the falling standard of living since the collapse of oil prices in 2014.
While other polls show the propensity to protest remains low — a result borne out by the relatively small crowds on the street over the weekend — the pressure on Putin is growing as he has failed to maintain the prosperity that is the bedrock of his support.
Protestor carried signs saying “This is not an election,” and “We won’t vote for anyone”.
Navalny has called for a boycott of the elections, which is what the authorities fear most as a low turnout would undermine Putin’s legitimacy.
The fact that Navalny’s rallies in the regions, and now in the capital, have gone ahead despite the lack of permission, and the fact that the authorities have held the police back, represent victories for the opposition and a weakening of the authorities’ grip.
Despite the heavy police presence the police reaction to the gatherings remained muted. There have been few reports of violence and only a few minor scuffles broke out between protestors and police. A total of 186 people had been detained as of 4pm Moscow time, according to local media reports. Police have not tried to clear the streets of protestors in Moscow despite the lack of official permission to assemble.
The Kremlin is terrified of radicalising the people, especially after the two Maidan revolutions in Ukraine, and so have refrained from violent police action.
“This is not about personal challenges. It is about compliance or noncompliance with Russian law,” Putin’s spokesman Dimitry Peskov told reporters. “Certainly, if the right to hold them is denied based on existing law, unpermitted rallies will have certain implications in terms of violations of the law,” he said on Friday in a suitably understated manner that highlights the Kremlin’s soft touch policy when it comes to containing the protests.
The opposition are left in the frustrating position where despite being able to march, there is little they can do to follow through. The authorities have run an effective programme of harassment and attrition that has contained the opposition.
A total of four candidates will run in the presidential elections; in addition to Putin, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Pavel Grudinin for the Communist Party, and socialite Ksenia Sobchak will contest the election.