On Sunday, January 28, demonstrations and protests organized by Alexei Navalny shook Russia once again, this time calling for what he has called “Voters’ strike” protests. While Navalny’s website claims these protests took place in 118 cities across Russia (Navalny.com, January 28), the authorities counted only 46 different actions comprising 3,500 people (Mvd.info, January 28). The protests were arranged by Navalny to register anger at the Russian government’s decision to bar him from running in the 2018 presidential election due to his criminal conviction for embezzlement. This conviction is widely seen as contrived and was recognized as such by the European Court of Human Rights earlier in January.
The largest “voters’ strike” took place in Moscow, where up to 1,000 people, led by Navalny himself, gathered on Pushkin Square around 2:00 pm, surrounded by a crowd of journalists. They proceeded to march down to Manezh Square, in front of the Kremlin, although the authorities had closed it in anticipation of Navalny’s protest. The Moscow protestors chanted: “Russia will be free,” “I am sick,’ “I am a brother of Navalny,” and “This is our city.” Around 5:00 pm, the protestors split up and around 100 went to protest in front of the Duma, but they dispersed a few hours later (Novaya Gazeta, January 28). Protests in Barnaul, Khabarovsk and Kemerovo drew about 150 participants. Magnitogorsk, Kurgan and Orenburg saw not more than 100 participants. Just under a thousand people marched in Ekaterinburg, whereas the strikes in Vladivostok, Krasnoyarsk, Tomsk and Irkutsk each drew about 200 people. Six hundred demonstrators turned out in Novosibersk, and 550 in Nizhny Novgorod (Mvd.info, January 28). In Russia’s northern “capital” of St. Petersburg, about 2,000 people arrived to strike (Lenta News, January 28); however they faced a similar array of obstacles to holding a successful rally.
If the Moscow march was representative, some of those involved were quite young, being early teenagers. For instance, 13-year-old Ivan was interviewed in Moscow and said, “I learned about the event from the Internet. I think that there will not be anyone worse than Putin, so I would trust a more open person. I decided to show that I exist. I came here to support Alexei [Navalny] and the overthrow of Putin as president” (Novaya Gazeta, January 28). Most of the other people interviewed in the article were also young, and the videos that exist of numerous demonstrations show that mostly young people attended. The youth of Russia have become a recent source of concern for the Kremlin (see EDM, November 6, 2017) given the unregulated nature of the Internet as an alternative means of influencing large numbers of people.
In most places, the response of the authorities was to arrest participants and leaders of the strikes. As a result a total of 257 were detained amongst all the protests. In Moscow, 16 were arrested. In Cheboksary more than 50, nearly 45 in Ufa, 31 in Kemerovo, 23 in Murmansk, and 16 in Tula (Novaya Gazeta, January 28). Navalny himself was arrested during the Moscow rally and charged with arranging a meeting without permission (article 20.2 of the code of administrative offenses). He was released late Sunday night while a full list of offenses was drawn up against him. His strained ally and actual contender in the election, who is framing herself as the “against all” candidate, Ksenia Sobchak, was waiting for him when he was released (Novaya Gazeta, January 28). Given all the cat-and-mouse games that the authorities and the opposition keep playing, it remains a mystery as to why the government does not simply permit Navalny to run. This decision would almost certainly increase voter turnout, while still producing a resounding mandate for Putin in his fourth term. Perhaps previous statements prohibiting Navalny from running have locked the Russian authorities into a position they do not feel able to change. If so, the protests on January 28 serve as another reminder that there are costs to keeping Navalny off the ballot as well.