Rattled by nationwide protests over jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Russian authorities are moving rapidly to block any new ones – from piling legal pressure on his allies to launching a campaign to discredit the demonstrations.
Unprecedented mass rallies across Russia on Jan. 23 demanding Navalny's release from jail resulted in thousands of arrests, and dozens of criminal investigations were opened. Scores of his associates and top allies have been jailed, with some facing criminal charges that carry prison terms.
President Vladimir Putin likened organisers of the protests to “terrorists,” and lawmakers charged that Navalny was a Western stooge and betrayed his country to benefit Russia's adversaries.
Navalny's team admits the pressure is unprecedented, but says it won't give in and is calling for another demonstration Sunday.
A look at the unrest and the Kremlin's strategy:
What Led to the Protests?
Navalny, Putin's fiercest critic, returned to Russia on Jan. 17 after five months in Germany, where he was recovering from a poisoning with a nerve agent that he blames on the Kremlin and that Russian officials deny.
The 44-year-old Navalny was arrested at the airport upon arrival and jailed for 30 days, pending a court hearing into whether to send him to prison for alleged probation violations of a past conviction — which he claims was politically motivated. A court Thursday refused to release Navalny, rejecting his appeal of his arrest.
Navalny is famous for his video investigations of official corruption. After his arrest, his team released a report on his YouTube channel about a USD 1.3 billion seaside compound allegedly built for Putin, featuring lavish Italian furnishings and even expensive toilet brushes. It has gotten over 99 million views.
The Kremlin and even Putin — who never mentions Navalny by name — denied it was built for him.
Navalny's team called for mass protests demanding his release on Jan. 23, and tens of thousands of people took to the streets in more than 100 Russian cities in the largest and the most widespread outpouring of anger toward the Kremlin in years. Rallies took place despite their lacking authorization, something that previously deterred a big turnout because of the threat of arrests.
What Was the Response by Authorities?
Days before the protests, scores of Navalny's associates were detained. Warnings that his team was encouraging minors to take to the streets started spreading among parents. Navalny's team rejected the accusations.
At the protests themselves, over 4,000 people were detained, according to OVD-Info, a human rights group that monitors political arrests. It said it was the most in its nine-year history of keeping records in the Putin era. In some cities, rallies were dispersed aggressively, and human rights advocates said there were instances of violence. About 20 criminal investigations were opened on a wide range of charges.
On Wednesday, Moscow police carried out a series of raids on apartments and offices belonging to Navalny associates and opposition figures, including his own apartment. The searches were conducted as part of investigations into alleged violations of coronavirus regulations during the protests, a charge that carries up to two years in prison.
Five people — including Navalny's brother Oleg and top ally Lyubov Sobol — have been detained for 48 hours in the case.
Russia's Investigative Committee also accused Navalny strategist Leonid Volkov of encouraging minors to participate in unauthorized protests. Volkov, who left Russia years ago, faces a possible prison term if he returns.
The case against him was opened a day after he wrote a Facebook post urging minors not to protest. “We haven't faced this kind of pressure before,” Ivan Zhdanov, head of Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption, told the AP.
What About Other Opposition Groups?
For years, Russia's opposition has consisted of fractured groups that often disagree with each other, although there have been instances of unity in recent years: In 2019, a campaign to allow opposition candidates to run for Moscow city council saw a dozen different politicians rally together and galvanize mass protests every weekend for several weeks. Navalny's case drew unanimous support from various opposition politicians, even those who usually disagree with him. They attended the Jan. 23 rally, issued statements demanding his release and shared the video about “Putin's palace” on social media.