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On Saturday 23 January, from Moscow to Sakhalin, tens of thousands of Russians went to the streets to show their support for Russia’s opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny, and to protest his unlawful detention. As a result, more than 3,000 demonstrators were arrested with almost one-third of the detainees being held in the capital. According to Reuters, almost 40,000 people took part in the demonstration in Moscow alone, although governmental figures only counted 4,000 demonstrators.
If Reuters’s numbers are confirmed, it would be the biggest protest in Russian history. Daria Kozlova, a local activist, commented to TNGO that the support shown to Navalny should not be understood as being “pro-Navalny” as not everyone is a fan of the journalist and politician, but instead, “[they] are fighting for free speech, for democracy, [and] for fair and transparent trials”.
Navalny recently went back to his home country after being hospitalised in Germany for many months due to Novichok poisoning. One theory holds that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) tried to poison Navalny, although the everlasting president of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, has denied the allegations.
It is not the first time Navalny has been hospitalised due to induced health complications. In 2019, he was poisoned while in jail, and in 2017 his sight was damaged because an attacker threw liquid antiseptic at him. When asked about why he decided to return to Russia, Navalny said that he did not leave Russia by choice, but because he had to be flown to Germany for medical attention. He continued by saying that it would not be right for him to “call for a revolution from Berlin”.
Once he arrived in Moscow, Navalny was arrested by the police and has had his internationally-covered hearing on February 2. The judicial hearing carried a dire sentence for the Russian politician, who now faces more than two years in prison. The day after his detention, Navalny’s team released an investigative report describing a secret palace on the Black Sea built for the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
The investigation is very thorough and includes financial details, floor plans, and photos of the area and the various people involved. The main objective of the investigation was to reveal financial manipulation and the schemes put in place by Putin to protect himself and his closest circle. The report can be found in video format on YouTube and in written format on an FBK-owned website, which includes photos and other documents. The report on the website is in Russian, and so is the video on YouTube, however, the almost-two-hour long video has English subtitles for international listeners.
The crowd of protesters was mainly composed of younger Russians, a generation that hopes for a democratic and equal Russia.
The Kremlin is obviously aware that the majority of the protesters are young adults, which is why some preventive measures were put in place to avoid the large gathering of youths in the streets. One of the main strategies was a joint action with some universities, which scheduled mandatory classes on January 23rd for all of their students. Furthermore, some universities have threatened to expel students caught protesting.
Emphasising the threat of the youth to Russian authorities, police went as far as to detain children. Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Anna Kuznetsova, confirmed that at least 300 minors were detained across Russia on Jan. 23. The majority of them had not been directly participating in the protests, yet were still taken and questioned by the police.
OVD-Info, a Russian pro-democracy organisation, reported that 3,435 people were detained at rallies across the country on January 23rd. This is on top of activists who were detained due to their association with Navalny, including his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, as well as his aide Lyubov Sobol and his lawyer Vladlen Los. Amnesty International dubbed these arrests as preventive detention: arresting individuals on bogus charges because they are deemed a political threat. Daria Kozlova explains that once detained, protesters were held for an excessive amount of time, with lack of food and water, and some were even assaulted and tortured while locked up.
Protesters have also been subjected to a series of violent police tactics at demonstrations. Countless amounts of video footage across social media shows protesters being beaten, dragged, and deliberately knocked over by police. Several cases have shown protesters being suddenly abducted by people in police vans and unmarked vehicles. Some people’s injuries required medical attention and a handful of protesters had to be hospitalised. Journalists present at the protests also faced violence from the police and were detained, despite being marked as press.
Russian authorities had announced prior to the protests that they would be declared illegal, warning of a tough crackdown. However, organisations and different nations have stated that this hardly justifies the extent of repression faced by peaceful protesters who were not inciting violence. Daria points out that internal state and media channels largely failed to clarify that several protest organisers had attempted to get permits for the rallies in order to legalise them, yet their requests were denied.
Police Brutality: The Bigger Picture
Police violence during the protests demonstrates an extensive violation of organisational procedures, summarises Daria. As several human rights organisations have outlined as well, these breaches indicate clear attempts to suppress free speech and the right to peaceful assembly. Hence, they have merely energised the protests which are also demanding stronger democracy. Internally, the government and state media have framed protesters as violent provocateurs. State prosecutors have already opened criminal cases against protesters for violence toward the police. St. Petersburg prosecutors, however, are investigating the violence used by police against protesters.
Police violence has been a common denominator of most protests that have occurred in Russia, and across the world, over the past year. While causes and national contexts have differed, the repressive tactics used by Russian police closely resemble the repressive tactics used by police forces in the US, Belarus, and Nigeria in 2020. However, we have seen from Russia’s protests that international cases have failed to deter internal movement. Russian protesters most likely expected violence, yet this did not stop them. Police brutality is, therefore, losing its effectiveness as a mechanism to suppress assembly and free speech.
Over recent days, the international community has been calling on the Kremlin to release Mr. Navalny, but to no avail. The answer foreign affairs officers who contacted the Kremlin would get was to “mind their own business”. In a Facebook post, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the international community should “respect international law…not encroach on national legislation of sovereign states, and address problems in [their] own country”.
In an official press statement, the US State Department condemned the use of violence by police against journalists and demonstrators, adding that prior to Saturday’s events “the Russian government sought to suppress the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression by harassing protest organisers, threatening social media platforms, and pre-emptively arresting potential participants. This follows years of tightening restrictions on and repressive actions against civil society, independent media, and the political opposition”.
Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, commented on Twitter on Jan. 23 stating
“I deplore widespread detentions, disproportionate use of force, cutting down internet and phone connections”.
The meeting held on Jan. 25 with EU Foreign Affairs Ministers was inclusive as it did not reach a unanimous decision on the sanctions against Russia.
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ABC News (2021). “Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny calls for mass protests after being remanded for 30 days”. ABC, 18 January, 2021.
Amnesty International (2021). “Russia: Scores of activists arrested for protesting the detention of Aleksei Navalny must be released”. Amnesty International, 23 January, 2021.
BBC Moscow (2019). “Moscow protests: What’s behind the rallies in Russia”. BBC News, 12 August, 2019.
BBC News (2021). “Alexei Navalny: ‘More than 3,000 detained’ in protests across Russia”. BBC News, 24 January, 2021.
DW News (2021). “Thousands turn out across Russia to protest Navalny arrest”. DW News, Youtube, 23 January, 2021.
Human Rights Watch (2021). “Russia: Police detain thousands in pro-Navalny protests”. Human Rights Watch, 25 January, 2021.
Lonsdorf, Kat (2021). “Social media fueled Russian protests despite government attempts to censor”. NPR, 24 January, 2021.
Osborn, Andrew; Zverev, Anton (2021). “Police crack down on Russian protests against jailing of Kremlin foe Navalny”. Reuters, 22 January, 2021.
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