Much Ado about Russia
Part Three of Unusual Civil Unrest
The issues concerning the right to peacefully assemble in Russia are not new, but they are becoming more intense. Laws concerning protests in the country originated in the era of the Soviet Union. In fact, many may associate controversial protest laws with current president Vladimir Putin, even though many laws were set much earlier – earlier laws were set in 1992 and 1993, which added onto the former soviet laws. But do not be mistaken, President Putin has also added his fair share of anti-protesting legislation. The original laws created a process of approval for protests, as civil unrest cannot be conducted publicly without government approval. Any gathering that is demonstrative in nature and includes more than one person must be approved by the government; however, the laws do not outline the government’s end of the procedure, and so technically speaking means that protests can only be banned if they inherently threaten the government. But by not definitively outlining the government’s end of the agreement, the government then are given the opportunity to abuse the power.
And that is exactly what is happening now. If you had not heard of anticorruption activist and opposition politician (for the Russia of the Future party) Alexei Navalny before this year rolled around, I am quite sure you would have heard about him by now. In August of 2020, Navalny fell violently ill during a plane ride, and was quickly hospitalized after an emergency descent. Tests would reveal that Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent as he was boarding a flight – a flight that would take him out of Russia. Since this information was released, his fellow party members and other anticorruption advocates, many of whom are westerners (with one report having been spearheaded by CNN), have claimed that Navalny was poisoned by Russian security services acting on the order of current president Vladimir Putin. Navalny then released a video which showed confirmation of this, with an expert on the subject confirming that Navalny was poisoned, and the poison was actually laced in his clothes. Had his plane not made an emergency decent, and had emergency services not been so prompt, Alexei Navalny could have fallen victim to the nerve agent.
Now that you are up to speed with whom Mr. Navalny is, let me tell you what he is doing for Russian civil disobedience. Navalny, now recovered from the nerve agent, returned to Russia in January of 2021. He was immediately detained. This did not come as a shock to Navalny, especially after releasing footage and statements that implicated Putin as his “attacker,” who did not pull the trigger so to speak but did order the hit. Navalny has gained worldwide media attention, and has earned name recognition. Putin may have hoped that the detention of Navalny would put an end to such an intense media campaign for his opposition, a significantly bigger media presence than the group enjoy in Russia.
His hopes were quickly dashed.
With news of Mr. Navalny’s detainment, and the later detentions of his wife and select colleagues, Russia’s precarious balance of “peace” has tipped. Protests have been ongoing in support of Navalny, and all of them are wholeheartedly antigovernmental in nature. As a westerner, it is hard for me to fully put myself in the shoes of a Russian youth protester. For us, especially here in the US, we also risk certain things when we go out and protest but freedom is not generally one of them. It is written in our very constitution, however misinterpreted it can be these days, that we have the right to “peacefully assemble.” Individuals in 2020 have risked a lot to go out and campaign for what they believe in, and yes, at times even their freedom and personal safety. But I believe as a westerner that we can never fully understand what it must be like to be in Russia, protesting against the government. While we may enjoy making jokes at Putin’s expense, about how much control he has over the country, for these individuals it is not a joke. It is real life, and cases such as the poisoning of Navalny which was ordered by the president are not isolated.
So, what is happening in Russia?
Well, I’m glad you asked. This is one protest movement that the Russian state will have a hard time covering up and will certainly never be able to make it disappear – but, unfortunately, not for lack of trying. For almost two weeks, in every major city in the country, thousands of individuals have gathered to show solidarity with Navalny, and the opposition political party. Which, in Russia, is something you tend to avoid doing. Thousands of protesters are being arrested every day as these protests continue. What were they being arrested for? Well, for protesting. A law, which was presented in 2014 (hint: when Putin was president) presents the punishments of fines and detention for anyone caught protesting without permission. The initial law presented a detention of 15 days for the first offense, culminating to a maximum sentence of five years for the third offense. However, when it was actually applied there were maximum sentences being handed out for first offenses. Before 2014, legislation was passed to raise the minimum fines for violating protest laws. And, I would like to point out, that the nature of the protest (peaceful versus violent) does not matter. You could be one individual standing at the side of the road holding a sign, and still receive five years in prison (this exact scenario has occurred). And what awaits the brave individuals who chose to attend protests in Russia? Brute force.
Fast forward to January 31st, 2021.
Many news articles, including a piece by the New York Times, has classified the level of current police force in response to the pro-Navalny protests as unprecedented in recent history. Perhaps only rivaled by the response to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (which, if we remember our history lessons, resulted in the establishment of an entirely new regime type… interesting, though perhaps not to be paralleled in modern times). The Kremlin has dispatched an intense militarized police force to thousands of cities in the country, which has resulted in reports of violence against protesters, as well as thousands more arrests. But something that these protests have that the Bolsheviks didn’t is helping them to accurately document what is going on: social media. I mentioned it in a previous installment of this series, but the importance of social media remains the same for these protesters. They are able to record what is happening to them, and to take and share photos of the police response to the demonstrations. Any hope of Putin’s to sweep Navalny under the rug is long, long gone. As of February 2nd, Alexei Navalny was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison, with official charges citing a parole violation (though, we all know that is not the full story). Thousands of protesters also sit in similar situations, where they await their fate for bravely taking part in antigovernmental protests (which, for the most part, have been peaceful). The intense police presence deployed by the Kremlin has not slowed down Navalny supporters. While these individuals are being subjected to violence, arrests, detentions, and fines, they are not slowing down. It seems as though living through the years 2020 and 2021 is to watch history unfold around us. Comparisons are already being made between Navalny and Lenin, for their ability to arouse change, and to compel citizens to act. So, if you had not heard about Alexei Navalny prior to these incidents, I am certain you have now been caught up to speed. As an analyst, it is my job to interpret trends as they occur in security incidents, and I do not expect to see a downward trend in pro-Navalny supporters