An estimated 60,000 people turned out for the fourth in a series of weekend protests in central Moscow on August 10, a number too large for the Kremlin to ignore that also suggests that the tactic of increased police brutality at recent protests to put off would-be protestors has backfired.
The demonstration was the largest since the 2011-2012 rallies that followed the Duma elections where the results were fixed to give the ruling United Russia party a narrow majority. And the high turnout was despite the terrible weather, summer holiday season that empties Moscow of students and a lot of regular citizens who go to the dacha, on top of the threat of police brutality.
The nature of the protests has changed. Previously the crowds were chanting “Let them in” in reference to the opposition leaders who have been excluded from the roster in the upcoming Moscow City Council elections on September 8. But at this latest rally the chants have changed to “Let them out” in reference to the 11 people that have been arrested and charged with provoking “mass social unrest” and face long prison sentences if convicted. Other protestors carried signs saying “I have a choice.”
It remains unclear to what extent the Moscow protestors have been inspired by the recent vibrant presidential and parliamentary election run off in Ukraine, the wave of protests in Georgia and the Western Balkans, or the velvet revolution in Armenia last year, but some Russian observers argue that after nearly three decades the younger population is becoming more politically mature and increasingly demanding responsible and responsive governments.
“Today’s large protest was undoubtedly fuelled by the violence police used on the protesters over the last month, as well as the real sentences many arrested are facing. The speeches today were focused on this and the city council elections almost felt like a secondary topic,” Today’s large protest was undoubtedly fueled by the violence police used on the protesters over the last month, as well as the real sentences many arrested are facing. The speeches today were focused on this and the city council elections almost felt like a secondary topic https://t.co/6LrviSOebz
Today’s large protest was undoubtedly fueled by the violence police used on the protesters over the last month, as well as the real sentences many arrested are facing. The speeches today were focused on this and the city council elections almost felt like a secondary topic https://t.co/6LrviSOebz— Pjotr Sauer (@PjotrSauer) August 10, 2019 Pjotr Sauer, an editor at the Moscow Times who was at the demonstrations.
Today’s large protest was undoubtedly fueled by the violence police used on the protesters over the last month, as well as the real sentences many arrested are facing. The speeches today were focused on this and the city council elections almost felt like a secondary topic https://t.co/6LrviSOebz
Many of the demonstrators carried placards with pictures of those put in jail facing prosecution, in what is widely believed to be a move to intimidate would-be protestors.
Once again the demonstration was completely peaceful. Despite heavy rain, tens of thousands were allowed to gather on Prospekt Sakharov, just outside the Garden Ring Road that surrounds central Moscow, but the police presence was heavy. With average temperatures of just 12C, Moscow is experiencing one of its coldest summers on record.
Although the rally was authorised by the authorities, a total of 352 people were arrested on August 10, according to NGO OVD Info, mostly in Moscow after a group of several thousand split off from the main rally and marched down to the government quarter to protest outside the president’s offices, which was not authorised.
More people were arrested in various Russian cities – 256 in Moscow, 79 in St Petersburg, 13 in Rostov-on-Don, two in Bryansk and two in Syktyvkar – where spontaneous unsanctioned rallies were held in sympathy with the Moscow protests. In Novosibirsk protestors lined up with placards calling for the right of the opposition to participate in local elections.
President Vladimir Putin chose to spend the weekend in Svrapol riding motorbikes with the Night Wolves motorcycle club.
"I am very pleased that these courageous and cool people serve as role models for youngsters in our country,” Putin said, as cited by the official Kremlin website.
Putin’s macho posing led the evening news. No mention of the Moscow protests was made on the main state news channels. At the demonstration one reporter from the Russia 1 state-owned channel was surrounded by the Журналист «России 1» тоже пришел освещать митинг. Собравшиеся встретили его криком «Позор!»
Видео: Василий Полонский / Дождь pic.twitter.com/aGU9jlfL3s
Журналист «России 1» тоже пришел освещать митинг. Собравшиеся встретили его криком «Позор!»
Brutal tactics backfire
Previous rallies on July 13, 20 and 27 and August 3 were marred by brutal police tactics, widely believed to be an intimidation attempt by the Kremlin. However, the numbers have swelled, as this tactic seems to have backfired. The early rallies of several thousand people rose to 20,000 that turned up for the July 20 rally, which was officially sanctioned, and between 5,000 and 10,000 participated in the July 27 and August 3 rallies which were not and were also scene of random police brutality against an entirely peaceful crowd.
Regular Muscovites have become increasingly outraged by the treatment dished out by law enforcement officers and several celebrities joined the rallies this weekend.
One of the most prominent was rapper Oxxxymiron who attended a protest for the first time ever and threatened with “problems at university” if she attended the August 10 demonstrations. She went anyway.
17 year old Olga Misik holds a sign saying “Putin’s direct line we are all expecting,” in reference to the president’s annual phone-in.
The involvement of these pop icons represents a shift, as neither of the men are overtly political but together they command more followers on social media than the official state news outlets and can channel directly to the Russian youth.
The authorities' heavy-handed tactics also seem to have galvanised the opposition movement, which in the past has been ineffectual and highly fragmented. In the last Duma election an attempt to form a coalition of opposition parties fell apart due to infighting and scored less than 1% of the vote on election day.
None of the prominent opposition leaders were present at the rally as they were all arrested ahead of the day and most are serving 30-day sentences on public disorder charges of some sort.
The emerging star of this wave of demonstrations has been opposition leader and human rights lawyer Lyubov Sobol, who has emerged as a new face on the opposition scene thanks to her defiance of the police and her public harangues of the authorities that have excluded her from running for the city council.
“What the Kremlin has really succeeded is turning Lyubov Sobol into an opposition lead of [Alexei] Navalny’s calibre,” What the Kremlin has really succeeded is turning Lyubov Sobol into an opposition leader of Navalny’s calibre. https://t.co/DlMwGrFblx
What the Kremlin has really succeeded is turning Lyubov Sobol into an opposition leader of Navalny’s calibre. https://t.co/DlMwGrFblx— Leonid Ragozin (@leonidragozin) August 10, 2019 Leonid Ragozin, a well known Russian journalist and commentator.
In a widely shared YouTube post she lambasted the committee that reviewed her application to stand for election and in even more dramatic footage she live streamed a commentary as ski-masked riot police broke down her front door and arrested her on the morning of the August 10 demonstration.
The Kremlin is in trouble
Russia’s NGOs have been spurred into action and are becoming increasingly more organised and active in disseminating information and providing help and support for those targeted by the police.
White Counter is an NGO that has been set up to count the number of protestors at events and estimated a total of 60,000 people took part in the August 10 rally. That stands in start contrast with the police estimates of 15,000.
The brutal treatment of both opposition leaders and the general public has galvanised Muscovites, who are widely seen as the most politically sophisticated Russians and also the most politically active.
The state’s attempt to distract them has proven fruitless. In parallel with the protests the city government organised the bizarrely named “Meat & Beat” (using English not Russian) festival of DJs and grill stands. Social media showed that few turned up for the event. The previous week the city organised a similar Shashlik (kebab) Live event but its claims that over 300,000 people attended were widely derided on social media by those that attended.
“100 more times people [went to Shashlik Live], than the protests,” wrote Margarita Simonyan, the editor of the state-funded RT to widespread scorn on social media. “Which leads to the conclusion that just like 20 years ago, the noise in the political internets has nothing to do with reality.”
Russian bloggers quickly noted that the numbers claimed by the organisers exceeded even large music festivals like Coachella, Glastonbury, and Russia’s Nashestviye.
Despite the obvious dissatisfaction of Muscovites with the authorities and the large crowds, it is unlikely that the protests will escalate further or that they will end in a so-called coloured revolution.
While Russians are unhappy with their government after almost six years of austerity, they are also aware that their standard of living remains the highest in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) – apart from the Baltics – and the lesson of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and then EuroMaidan uprisings is that large scale social unrest is destructive. As bne IntelliNews has reported, Russia is stuck in a middle-income trap. Russian protestors are as motivated by protecting their hard won gains of the last two decades as they are desirous of change. Polls have found that while they want change, the overwhelming preference is for gradual change.
The weekend protests will continue until the elections. It remains to be seen if the Kremlin will change its tactics and offer concessions or if it will continue to ramp up its brutal oppression of the protestors.