Hundreds arrested during Russian “He’s not my tsar” protests

Hundreds arrested during Russian “He’s not my tsar” protests
Opposition leader Navalny was carried from the protest by police. Up to 2,000 people were briefly arrested during a series of protests across Russia on May 5. / twitter
By bne IntelliNews May 7, 2018

Anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny was arrested by riot police only minutes after arriving at an unsanctioned protest rally on Pushkin Square in central Moscow on May 5.

Up to 2,000 people were briefly arrested during a series of protests across Russia on May 5 just a few days before President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming inauguration. The demonstrators' slogan was “He’s not my tsar.”

The biggest, and what turned out to be the most violent protest, was organised for the heart of Moscow on Pushkin Square by anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny.

The city government had given Navalny permission to hold a protest on May 7 on Sakharov Prospect in central Moscow, but Navalny defied the authorities by holding the protest two days early and in the Russian capital's most central square in a move clearly designed to provoke the government.

Unusually, the authorities sent in riot police to break up the protest leading to a wave of pictures and video on social media of the police’s brutal treatment of the crowds. Navalny was arrested within miniutes of arriving at the demonstration, but not before he managed to make a short speech. Several children of about 12 years-old were also arrested according to reports on social media.


According to one more detailed report, the police detained over 1,000 people at nationwide protests, including 574 in Moscow, 164 in Chelyabinsk, 75 in Yakutsk, 63 in Tolyatti, 53 in St Petersburg and 49 in Krasnodar.

In another report, by OVD-Info, a rights organisation that monitors detentions, it was suggested that police detaining 1,597 people across Russia, nearly half of them in Moscow.

A police spokesman said around 1,500 people had protested in Moscow, of whom around 300 had been detained, Interfax news agency reported. Reuters reporters estimated that the crowd numbered several thousand.

Navalny called for demonstrations in more than 90 towns and cities across Russia against what he says is Putin’s autocratic, tsar-like rule.

Videos of police using batons to beat protesters before dragging them away were widespread. The video below shows a typical scene, reportedly from the protests in St Petersburg. 

Riot police arrest a protester during an unsanctioned rally in St Petersburg

In Moscow, Navalny appeared in front of the crowd with a megaphone lung under his arm. “They said that this city belongs to Putin. Is that right?” Navalny asked his supporters. “Do you need a tsar?” he asked, eliciting a collective roar of “No!”

Riot police quickly moved in and clearly had orders to arrest Navalny who was carried from the square. Then more police arrived and cleared the square of protesters.

Demonstrations have become a regular occurrence in Russia over the last year, since Navalny went on a regional tour starting last summer ahead of the March presidential election, but the authorities have been pulling their punches allowing most to proceed unmolested, even if they were not officially sanctioned. However, this demonstration elicited the toughest action by police seen in several years.

Anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny spoke briefly to the crowd before being arrested. The sign behind him says “I’m against corruption.”

Points of contention

There are several points of contention regarding this protest, the first involving the demonstrators' right to assemble without permission from the city government. The Russian constitution guarantees the free right of assembly, but what is not clear is if demonstrators need a permit or not.

The city government offered Navalny an alternative venue, across town on Sakharov Prospect but Navalny defied the city and called for an assembly on Pushkin’s Square. The authorities are taking the line that a legal location was offered to the demonstrators, but they chose to ignore it. Indeed, the city usually offers protestors some location, but typically it is in out of the way suburbs of Moscow. The opposition claims that the constitution guarantees their right to assembly and that no permit is needed; they only need to inform the state of where and when the demonstrators will assemble and are free to choose the location.

The confusion was acknowledged by the European Union (EU) in a statement, which said: “Even if some of the demonstrations were not authorised in the location where they took place, this cannot justify police brutality and mass arrests.”

Despite the arrests, almost all of those detained were immediately released. Shortly after midnight on May 6, Navalny said on social media that he had been released from custody in advance of a court appearance, which is expected to take place on May 11.

“Apparently the order came down not to ‘jail me before the (Putin) inauguration,’” wrote Navalny. The penalty for the offences of organising an unsanctioned rally and disobeying the police could see him fined and jailed for up to 30 days.

The government was keen to break up the demonstration but it is still being careful not to inflame the situation.

While the protests became a media circus, garnering widespread coverage in the international media - although there was almost no coverage in the state-controlled domestic media - the number of Russians supporting the protests remains small.

According to the most recent independent Levada Center poll the propensity to protest with political demands remains at a historic low.

At the same time the Russian population remains largely satisfied with the government and the majority believes the country is “going in the right direction,” according to Levada.

In an even more recent poll, a record high 81% of Russians believed that they were happy overall, according to the state-owned pollster, the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM). The proportion hasn't sunk belong 80% for two years. Among the age group of 18-24, 88% of the respondents said they considered themselves happy. And for wealthy people, the proportion was as high as 95%, while even 55% of those who were unsatisfied with their financial situation said they were happy.

While there is clearly a small and vocal group of Russians that are increasingly critical of the Kremlin, what is not clear is how widespread these attitudes are. Although the international community and its press strongly criticise Putin and the heavy-handed use of police at events like this demonstration, in the March elections Putin gained 10mn more votes than in the previous election in 2012 – and that is after subtracting the approximately 10-12% of extra votes that were added by the state to push Putin’s result over 50% of votes from the entire population.

With more than 56mn votes, almost 77% of the total number of registered voters, his March election win was his biggest ever and the largest by any post-Soviet Russian leader, something he and his allies say gave him an unequivocal mandate to govern. In 2012, Putin won a total of 46.6mn votes or 63.6% of the vote. In both elections, statisticians have shown that the Kremlin injected some 5-12% of extra votes into the system to push Putin’s result over key constitutional thresholds. However, in both votes even dropping these extra votes from the counting leaves Putin clearly commanding a simple majority of genuine votes.

In other words Putin is genuinely popular and  “Fortress Russia” and “Reject the west” messages resonate with a large and growing part of the population.

Putin has dismissed Navalny as a troublemaker bent on sowing chaos on behalf of Washington.

On the other side of the balance sheet, Navalny commands the support of only 2% of the population in opinion polls. Clearly his popularity is suppressed by the total control the Kremlin exercises over the airwaves, but it remains open to debate how well he would do if the media was free – better than 2% surely, but as things stand it is unlikely he would be able to seriously challenge Putin’s ratings even in a open society.