Mass protests in wake of Navalny arrest could signal new political dynamic in Russia

More than a 100,000 Russians answered the call of imprisoned anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny to take to the streets over the weekend. The scope of the unrest suggests opposition to President Vladimir Putin is on the rise, writes Chris Brown.

New demonstrations in Russian cities called for this coming Sunday

Law enforcement officers clash with participants during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on Jan. 23. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

The wave of demonstrations that swept across Russia this weekend were notable for more than just the huge number of people who answered Alexei Navalny's call to protest his arrest.

Just as striking were those in the crowd who said they had never supported the opposition figure before, but came out to signal their discontent with corruption and other complaints about Vladimir Putin's government.

The composition of the crowd, as well as the breadth of the protests across more than 100 Russian towns and cities, is a strong indication that Navalny's protest movement has significantly expanded its reach.

"The Kremlin's mistake was to underestimate Navalny's level of support," Russian political observer Andrei Kolesnikov said in a tweet Monday.

Kolesnikov, a fellow at Moscow's Carnegie Center who has extensively tracked Russian public opinion toward the Putin government, said that when people saw Navalny's arrest on live TV upon his return to Russia on Jan. 17, as well as the online release last week of a documentary about President Putin's alleged corruption, "it provided a strong emotional impulse to take to the street."

A protester is detained by law enforcement during Saturday's protest in Moscow. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

The Reuters news agency reported that more than 40,000 people showed up in Moscow and 100,000 nationwide. What made the weekend turnout even more remarkable was that it happened against a backdrop of threats of arrest and intimidation from Russian security forces and cold weather (in some parts of Siberia, it was below –40 C), as well as the raging coronavirus pandemic.

Nationwide, authorities made more than 3,700 arrests, including many of Navalny's top organizers. His wife, Yulia, who some believe may end up leading the protest movement while Navalny is in jail, was also taken into custody but released a few hours later.

Striking turnout

Navalny, a 44-year-old lawyer turned anti-corruption crusader, staged a dramatic return to Russia just over a week ago after spending five months in Germany recovering from an assassination attempt.

The Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons confirmed the presence of a nerve agent on Navalny's clothing during a flight through central Russia in August, and further investigations by the journalism collective Bellingcat implicated a team of Russian secret police agents controlled by the Kremlin as having been responsible.

A still image taken from video footage shows law enforcement officers speaking with Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny before leading him away at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow on Jan. 17. (Reuters)

After his recovery, Navalny ignored repeated warnings by Russian prosecutors to remain outside the country, and was promptly arrested after landing in Moscow. During a lightning-fast hearing in a police station, Navalny was ordered held in custody in a process one veteran Russian legal observer told CBC News was "bullshit."

Prosecutors claim Navalny was jailed because he violated his parole — terms it would have been impossible for him to comply with since he was recovering in Germany from the attempt on his life.

Navalny's persona and politics are complicated. While he has been embraced as a pro-democracy crusader by allies in the West, Navalny has also said the disputed Crimean peninsula should remain part of Russia. Other critics claim that Navalny is anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim and that in the past he has supported the far right.

For years, even as he organized huge anti-Kremlin rallies in Russia, Navalny failed to build a united coalition against Putin, prompting many in opposition to claim Navalny is not a team player.

Nonetheless, the assassination attempt and his subsequent arbitrary arrest appears to have helped some people overcome their misgivings.

"I am sick of this government of thieves," 68-year-old pensioner Galina Zolina told the CBC News crew at Saturday's protest in central Moscow. "This is a police state that gives nothing to the people. [Putin] builds palaces for himself. What is this?" 

Protester Yevgeny Goloviev told CBC News why he defied warnings and the threat of arrest to come out to Saturday's anti-government protest in Moscow. (Dmitry Kozlov/CBC)

Yevgeny Goloviev, a 28-year-old musician, said he wants Russia to be more democratic, with elections that aren't pre-determined by the Kremlin.

"I don't even think Navalny is the best politician," Goloviev said. "But I believe in the fact that power should change."    

Many young people at the protests were reluctant to provide their names to CBC, fearing repercussions for them and their families.

"I think we have a police state, and we don't have fair judgments," said one 25-year-old woman. "If something goes wrong, I don't feel I will be protected by my government."

Putin's palace

Part of what spurred people to take to the streets this weekend was the release by Navalny's team of an investigation into corruption involving Putin and his allies. The almost two-hour video, entitled "Putin's Palace," claims Russia's leader has been the beneficiary of a $1.35 billion US estate on the Black Sea, paid for by cronies of the regime.

The documentary has been viewed a staggering 80 million times on YouTube.

Among the extravagances cited in the video were toilet brushes that cost more than $800 each, leading many in Saturday's giant crowds to wave toilet brushes high above their heads.

Russian President Vladimir Putin does a video conference call with university students at a state residence in Zavidovo, Russia, on Monday. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters)

Putin himself took the unprecedented step Monday of personally denying Navalny's allegations, saying the opulent property "does not and has never belonged to me or my close relatives."     

His statement, however, did not directly address Navalny's claim that the Black Sea estate was built and managed on Putin's behalf by his friends. 

'Coalition of the fed-up'

Mark Galeotti, a London-based Russia analyst and host of the podcast In Moscow's Shadows, said in his podcast episode on Sunday that the protests are "not a knockout blow to the state. We shouldn't start moving into hyperbole, that this is the beginning of the end of Putinism."

Nonetheless, Galeotti said the fact that so many people with grievances against Putin's government managed to unite around Navalny's call to demonstrate is unprecedented.

It's a "coalition of the fed-up," said Galeotti. "People have all kinds of reasons to feel unhappy with the way things are going and [Navalny] kind of becomes the catalyst."

The size and impact of the weekend's demonstrations triggered a notable change in tack for the state TV news broadcasts. Rather than the usual practice of ignoring Navalny, the major programs addressed him and his "Putin Palace" investigation directly.

"Putin isn't taken with toilet brushes," claimed host Dmitry Kiselyov of Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week). "He's of a completely different calibre."

Kisyelov's program dedicated 55 minutes out of a two-hour long show to denigrating Navalny with unfounded claims that he has an extensive "criminal history." Kisyelov also bizarrely accused Navalny's team of resorting to "political pedophilia" by using teenagers and other young Russians to drum up support for the street demonstrations.

Law enforcement officers stand in front of participants during a rally in support of Navalny in St. Petersburg on Saturday. (REUTERS)

In the days leading up to Saturday's protests, tens of thousands of young Russians posted short pro-Navalny videos on TikTok — everything from diatribes against Putin to tips on how to stay safe at the protests.

Western meddling?

Another common theme on Russia state TV this weekend was that the protests were Western-inspired and led by the United States.

As it has done before, the Russian embassy in the United Kingdom seized on a warning issued by the U.S. embassy in Moscow for people to avoid the protest zone. The notice gave out specific times and places for protests, leading Russian officials to claim the U.S. was in fact instigating the unrest.

"Hypocrites continue to inflate the fake Navalny case to interfere into internal affairs of our country," said the Russian embassy in the U.K. on Twitter. "This is a professionally prepared provocation, encouraged by embassies of Western countries."

The crucial question going forward is whether Navalny's call for sustained protests will follow a Belarus model.

Russia's much-smaller neighbour has witnessed weekly street protests against the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for the past six months, but Belarus's leader has shown no signs he plans to relinquish power.

Or will the anti-government anger against Putin and his United Russia party simply subside, as has traditionally been the case?

Riot police drag away a protester in Moscow on Saturday. More than 1,400 people were arrested in the capital alone, with 3,700 arrests reported nationwide. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Although there were many scenes of violence in Moscow on Saturday, including protesters fighting back against heavily armoured riot police, there were no reports of serious injuries, and in general, police were more reserved in their use of force than they have been in the past.

By comparison, the extreme violence unleashed by security forces in the early days of the protests in Belarus last summer in all likelihood drove more people out to protest.

In his latest podcast, Galeotti said "it's hard to maintain the momentum week after week."

He said the anti-Putin opposition needs to try to shift the focus off crowd sizes, as they will inevitably dwindle as time goes on. Galeotti said that to sustain momentum, they need to adopt other tactics, such as encouraging flash mobs or more online protests.

He also expected the Kremlin to try to slowly grind down the protesters with a mix of repression and propaganda.

"One way or another, the state wants to slowly de-legitimize the protests and make them less appealing, and by outlasting them, make opposition look increasingly pointless."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.