The much-anticipated verdict of Russian opposition blogger Aleksei Navalny, was unexpectedly moved up from its scheduled reading date of January 15, 2015, and was instead read on December 30, 2014, at the Zamoroveskom court in Moscow. Navalny, one of the leaders of the 2011–2012 mass protests against electoral fraud and Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, has heretofore been under house arrest. But the final verdict sentenced Aleksei Navalny and his brother Oleg for embezzling 26 million rubles ($411,000) from the cosmetics company Yves Rocher East (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 30, 2014). Navalny used his closing statement to inform the court and “all those who permit the authorities to violate the law” that no court verdict would be able to prevent fresh protests.
The court’s ultimate decision was harsher on Oleg Navalny than on his brother Aleksei. Both siblings received three and a half years in prison, but Oleg’s sentence was to be served out behind bars, whereas Aleksei’s sentence was suspended. Aleksei Navalny was also fined 500,000 rubles ($7,900) and continues to be subject to house arrest. According to Navalny’s press relations secretary, Kira Yarmish, they will “designate an appeal for April” (Rbc.ru, December 30, 2014). The regime appears to be using the official legal apparatus of the state to repress dissent but fears attacking Navalny directly due to the social reaction this might provoke. And just as the regime has been prosecuting the families of suspected militants who travel to Syria to participate in jihad (see EDM, October 24, 2014), so too the Russian government now appears to be prosecuting the families of dissidents—as illustrated by the prison sentence handed down on Oleg Navalny.
Nonetheless, a social reaction did emerge after the court issued its verdict. Writing on his blog, Aleksei Navalny said, “I have not changed one thing in my position, nor do I retract one word. The power of thieves, sycophants, and traitors in Russia must be destroyed. Once again, I encourage everyone to remember: it [the current Russian regime] exists because we allow it by our passivity” (Navalny.com, December 30, 2014). Determined to change this passivity, Navalny’s supporters used Facebook to call for a “people’s gathering” (“Narodnoi Skhod) or “another Maidan [referring to the massive protest movement in Kyiv, Ukraine, in winter 2013–2014, which resulted in the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime]” on Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square. One participant in the December 30 protest reported that an estimated 18,000 participants had signed up on Facebook to attend the rally (Zyalt Livejournal, December 31, 2014). Arguably, this street demonstration represented the best chance of reinvigorating the opposition protest movement since Putin’s annexation of Crimea sent the Russian president’s approval ratings to roughly 85 percent. Precisely for this reason, then, the mayor of Moscow did not sanction the protests, saying that “no one has filed an application. This is an unsanctioned rally and those in attendance will be dealt with by the law enforcement organs” (RIA Novosti, December 30, 2014).
As it turned out, there were rallies in “Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and other cities throughout Russia and the whole world,” Aleksei Navalny triumphantly wrote on his blog. Navalny also cited Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative as a source of inspiration and re-iterated his view on the demands of the protest movement: “the theme should be the struggle with corruption, the rule of law, the right to participate in elections, and the return of direct elections of governors and mayors. These are the issues on which 85 percent of the population supports us” (Navalny.com, December 31, 2014). Far from the 18,000 participants who had signed up on Facebook, however, the December 30 Moscow rally attracted only 500 protestors (according to the police) or “some thousands” (according to the protest organizers). Protesters chanted “I am the brother of Navalny” as one of the central slogans. The police restrained the rally and arrested 170 participants. Informal policing units, such as Cossacks from the Central Cossack Host, were also present at the rally. One member of the Central Host told journalists that he “did not want to repeat the Maidan on Manezhnaya Square. Similarly, lasers projected “no Maidan” on the fifth floor of the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Aleksei Navalny himself had tried to attend the rally, despite being under house arrest. According to sources, Navalny made it as far as the ‘National’ hotel on Tverksaya street where he was arrested and returned to his house with five police officers stationed to ensure he remained there (Rbc.ru, December 30, 2014). The punk rock group Pussy Riot also released a video in support of the demonstrations.
The protest rally in Moscow in support of Navalny attracted not only liberal-minded individuals, but also certain groups of extreme-right nationalists, who billed the December 30 Manezhnaya events as being “a nationalist people’s gathering against repression, against all the politics of Putin” (Rusnat.com, December 30, 2014). The nationalists may also have been trying to use the protest as a forum to declare their support for extreme-right leader Alexander Potkin (a.k.a. Belov), who was recently arrested in Russia at the request of the government of Kazakhstan (Rosndp.org, November 12 2014). It should be noted that it was precisely a union of liberal and nationalist elements that supported Navalny during the mass Russian protests in 2011–2012 (Richard Arnold, “Aleksei Navalny and the Russian Opposition” in Heaney [ed.] Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia 2015, Routledge, November 2014). A similarly wide mix of social factions constituted the protesters on the Maidan in Kyiv, so perhaps the Russian authorities’ fear that the Manezhnaya demonstration could morph into a new Maidan was well-founded. Nonetheless, in trying to place a lid on the simmering nationalist sentiment in Russia, the government may only be making its eventual explosion more fantastic.