It’s marching season in Moscow: Over the weekend, police detained more than 1,000 people in protests over municipal elections scheduled for September.
Independent monitors put the number of arrests much higher. According to OVD-Info, an independent site that monitors arrests, 1,373 people were detained in connection with Saturday’s unsanctioned protests, which came a week after a legal demonstration in support of free and fair elections drew over 20,000 people, according to White Counter, a group that monitors attendance figures at protests.
The question, now, is whether protests in Moscow will build more national momentum – and how the Kremlin will respond if they do.
The protests were spurred by local politics: A move by local election authorities to keep independent and opposition candidates off the ballot in September’s elections. But demonstrations have become a barometer of discontent with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as a gauge of the Russian government’s willingness to crack down on dissent.
Unlike in the much larger marches in Hong Kong, authorities in Moscow have not deployed tear gas or fired rubber bullets. But eyewitnesses to Saturday’s protest, including CNN reporters, saw well-equipped riot police cordon off the crowds, with squads of helmeted officers surging into the crowd to detain and disperse protesters, truncheons at the ready.
Authorities signaled in advance that protests would be dealt with severely. In advance of Saturday’s rally, police warned Muscovites to stay away, saying their security would not be guaranteed if they chose to take part in an unsanctioned march to the Moscow mayor’s office.
Police also made a pre-emptive effort to thwart the organizers. In the days running up to Saturday’s protest, authorities rounded up a number of prominent opposition figures. Among those detained was top opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who was arrested as he went out for a morning jog and to buy flowers for his wife’s birthday.
The day after the rally, attention shifted to Navalny himself, after the opposition leader was hospitalized for an “acute allergic reaction.” Later on Sunday, Navalny’s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, quoted a Facebook post by Navalny’s personal physician who was able to observe him at the hospital where he was taken from a Moscow detention center.
“We cannot rule out toxic damage to the skin and mucous membranes by an unknown chemical substance with the help of a certain ‘third person,’” the post read, adding that visiting doctors had not been given full access to Navalny. Doctors were able to examine him Monday.
On Monday, Yarmysh said authorities had ordered the Kremlin critic back to jail. While his condition apparently had improved, Navalny’s sudden illness prompted worried speculation. The opposition leader has been physically attacked before, and was partially blinded in one eye in 2017 when he was splashed with an antiseptic green dye.
While the cause of Navalny’s illness is still unknown – a physician who examined him said no toxicology report was available – one thing is clear: Russian opposition figures continue to face physical threats, intimidation and violence.
In 2014, members of the punk performance-art group Pussy Riot were beaten by security officials in the Winter Olympics host city of Sochi. One year later, Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, was gunned down on a bridge near Red Square. And poisonings are not unheard of: Anna Politkovskaya, a renowned investigative journalist, claimed to have been poisoned in 2004. She was later assassinated in 2006, on Putin’s birthday.
At Saturday’s march, one of the slogans marchers chanted was, “Russia will be free.” But the Kremlin, up to this point, has been officially silent on the weekend’s events.
On the day of the protest, state news was covering a classic Putin photo opportunity: The president descending to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland in a bathyscaphe to observe a submarine that sank during World War II.
These manly adventures have been a cornerstone of Putin’s popular appeal. But it remains to be seen if the president’s bare-chested patriotism will be enough to appease those Russians who are willing to take to the streets.