This new wave of anti-corruption demonstrations erupted three months ago at the behest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Unexpected, large numbers of young people turned out to demonstrate in cities across Russia. The face of political protest is now that of a university student or even a high school senior. And the most iconic slogan of the burgeoning movement is “Corruption is stealing our future.”
Over 1700 protesters were detained during Monday’s rallies, with the overwhelming majority of arrests taking place in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Some of these people have received from five to 15 days of administrative arrest. Navalny was sentenced to 30 days of detention. According to OVD-Info, an independent police watchdog, there were many minors among the detained.
In Moscow, the confrontation between protesters and police occurred after Navalny moved the rally to an unauthorized location in the city center: Tverskaya Street, where official celebrations of the patriotic Russia Day holiday were scheduled to take place.
Heavily armed riot police showed little hesitation to use their truncheons as they rounded up young protestors. At least one activist, Yulia Galyamina, was hospitalized with a concussion. Police beat her after she askedthembehave in accordance with the law.
The protests were “vile and dangerous provocation,” according to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. “We were lucky no blood wasspilt,” he later commented.
He wasn’t the only one to consider the rallies provocative. Navalny says he decided to move the protest from its authorized location after the authorities refused to allow him to usenecessarysound equipment there.
But his decision to hold the rally on Tverskaya, where the authorities were marking Russia Day, essentially guaranteed a confrontation with police and violent detentions.
Some commentator called the move a deliberately risky mistake. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oiltycoonand now exiled political activist, suggested that provoking the authorities was Navalny’s intention.
“Provocation is a normal political action,” he told Ekho Moskvy radio. “But this time, in my opinion, it was a bit harsh.”
But others suggested that moving the rally to Tverskaya was the only way to make it into a real political demonstration. “By allotting the protesters a specially designated place, the authorities aim to separate the protest from the rest of society and marginalize the participants,” says Kirill Rogov, a political analyst. “Navalny wanted to be in the center of the crowd, so he had to break the rules.”
In the last few months, Navalny has taken a quantum leap, establishing himself as the only true and energetic opponent of Putin in Russian politics. Treated as an outcast by the establishment and totally banned from Russian national television, Navalny has nonetheless achieved nationwide recognizability.
The latest poll by the independent Levada Center showed that 15 percent of Russians were aware of the anti-corruption rallies Navalny was planning for June 12. What’s more, Navalny’s daily Q&A’s on his Youtube channel — held at 20:18 p.m., a reference to his campaign in the upcoming 2018 presidential election — now get hundreds of thousands of hits every day.
Navalny’s platform, often described as populist, is centered on fighting corruption and anti-elite sentiment. His recent political rise began with a YouTube investigation of mansions and yachts allegedly funneled to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as bribes. The video has been viewed millions of times.
In Russia, many blame the elite for the country’s problems instead of Putin. The maxim “Goodtsar, bad boyars” has a long history in the country. Some liberal commentators have even accused Navalny of deliberately handling going easy on Russia’s president to avoid antagonizing his base.
But that was hardly the case on June, 12. On Tverskaya, youthful protesters chanted “Putin is a thief!” and “Putin, out!,” two key slogans of the 2011-2012 protests.