Russian Interior Ministry forces (MVD) have been detaining activists organising and promoting the country-wide protests planned for this weekend by jailed anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny.
In what is clearly a well-planned strategy, Navalny called for the demonstrations the day after he was arrested following his return to Russia on January 17. Navalny had spent the previous five months in Germany recuperating from a poisoning attack that used the military grade nerve agent Novichok.
Navalny has activated his regional network of supporters to bring people on to the streets on January 23. While Navalny does not have a political party per se – the protests are being organised by “Team Navalny” – he has been touring the country in recent years and two years ago organised a series of popular rallies in the regions to protest against corruption in the government.
“The opposition leader is now mobilizing a network of regional offices he created for his presidential run in 2017 and 2018 — before the Kremlin barred him from running. This network of 37 “headquarters” (down from 81 at the height of Navalny’s campaign) is now helping prepare protests all over the country, advertising their locations and in some cases tying local issues to calls for Navalny’s liberation,” FPRI BMB Russia said in a post.
In September Navalny’s network was also used to organise a protest vote in the nationwide regional and local elections that was seen as a dry run for the most important Duma elections slated for this September. Navalny's team tried to rally locals to engage in “smart voting”, where they vote for any candidate that had a chance of winning and is not from the ruling United Russia Party.
Navalny has certainly touched a nerve with young Russians, who are probably more worldly than their parents. There has been a slew of TicTok posts by Russian teenagers, who have only known Putin as a leader, giving advice on how to avoid being arrested by the police. “Pretend you are an American tourist and that you have left your passport at the hotel,” says one in a hilarious post that includes a crash course in how to say a few key phrases in heavily accented US English.
More seriously many of Navalny’s leading allies have already been arrested ahead of the rallies this weekend including Lyubov Sobol, another prominent opposition leader, and Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, who accompanied him on both the plane in Omsk where he was poisoned in August and the plane back from Berlin this month.
Law enforcement officers are reportedly charging Navalny’s supporters with an administrative violation for inciting unauthorised protests.
On January 20 and 21, law enforcement officers began showing up at the homes of opposition figures, activists and journalists across Russia to issue warnings from state prosecutors against participating in the rallies, Meduza reports.
Meanwhile, Russia’s telecoms watchdog has orders to block online content containing calls for demonstrations. In some parts of the country, the local authorities are already handing out fines and launching criminal investigations over protests that have yet to take place.
In the last two days police officers across Russia have been targeting the homes of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) staff members, as well as journalists and activists that have been active on social media publishing the times and meeting points for over 60 regional rallies.
Sobol broadcast her detention via live stream. She invited them to leave documents in her mailbox, saying: “Did you bring them? Well done, you fulfilled your duty to Putin.” Reportedly, there were also officers keeping watch near her home.
The protest organisers haven’t sought permission from the authorities to hold the demonstrations. Navalny and his team announced the protests immediately after a judge remanded the opposition figure in custody for 30 days, pending a trial on revoking his probation and incarcerating him under a reinstated sentence in the Yves Rocher fraud case, which Navalny says is politically motivated.
A number of well-known public figures have spoken out in support of Navalny, including journalist and YouTuber Yury Dud, musician Noize MC, economist Sergey Guriev, and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Police officials have warned about a possible repeat of the “Belarusian scenario” in Russia. “Based on the example of proven political strategies in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, we can’t exclude the possibility of a similar swing in the situation in our country,” said the Interior Ministry’s First Deputy Head, Alexander Gorovoy.
Police officials also underscored that they have the right – even before the protests – to bring administrative charges against those inciting demonstrations.