ONSaturday widespread demonstrations started in all major Russian cities, from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok, the same day of President Putin’s 65th birthday.
The objective was to protest the arrest of opposition leader Alexej Navalny, who was sentenced to 20 days imprisonment. Navalny had already been arrested twice this year, once in March and again in June. The media outlet Meduza has calculated that, since last December, Navalny has spent one day out of five in prison.
In December, Navalny launched his campaign for the March 2018 presidential elections. Theoretically, the constitution of the Russian Federation prevents him from running for the office, since he has already other sentences pending. However, his campaign team thinks that if he gathers enough popular support, the Kremlin will be forced to let him run. Therefore, they started organizing demonstrations in all the main urban centres of the country as part of the #Navalny2018 campaign.
Until now, such demonstrations have enjoyed an unexpected success. A rally on the 16th of September in Yekaterinburg saw almost 10,000 people manifesting, according to the organizers. The following day the Siberian city of Omsk witnessed a participation rate that astonished both the organizers and the journalists, since until last year Navalny was largely unknown in the Russian province.
Navalny’s arrest came immediately before the manifestation that had been planned for October 7th in St Petersburg. This particular demonstration had been expected to attract a huge number of protesters, since Navalny himself is from St Petersburg. After the sentence, the Navalny team decided to turn the St Petersburg meeting into a nationwide protest against his arrest. The manifestations saw around 80 Russian cities involved, with number of participants ranging from dozens to hundreds of people.
The biggest rallies took place in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It has been calculated that over two thousand people gathered on the Champs de Mars in St Petersburg, and about one thousand in Pushkinskaja square in Moscow. People came out on the streets carrying Russian flags and rubber ducks, which have become a symbol of anti-corruption protests in Russia since Navalny released a video showing Medvedev’s luxurious estate with a duck pond included. The most popular chants were “Russia without Putin”, “Russia will be free”, “Free Navalny”, “Putin is a thief” and, of course, “happy birthday Mr Putin”.
In Yekaterinbug, the protesters were joined by opposition mayor Yevgeny Roizman, who later wrote on Twitter: “I think that the Kremlin should allow Aleksej Navalny to run for President, just as not to embarrass itself”. From Yekaterinburg came also a picture that went viral and became a symbol of these protests: the police asking a little girl to hand over her “Navalny 2018” helium balloon because it was “against the law”.
By the end of the day at least 271 people had been arrested, according to OVD-Info. 62 people were detained in St Petersburg alone, with a further 54 held for questioning in Yaroslavl’ and 20 in Lipetsk. In total, people were detained in 26 cities. The police reaction was particularly strong in St Petersburg, where some activists were seriously injured.
Saturday’s rallies were smaller than previous protests in in March and May. On March 26, thousands of people participated in the mass protest against corruption, and more than 500 were arrested. On June 11, more than 20,000 Muscovites took to the streets to protest the urban renewal program promoted by Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin. The following day mass protests were organized in more than 80 Russian cities. By nightfall, 750 people had been arrested in Moscow and 900 in St Petersburg.
The more subdued tone of these demonstrations is probably due to fear, now that people have understood what is the usual reaction of the police towards unauthorized meetings. Another possible factor at play is the fact that the election of Vladimir Putin to his fourth presidential mandate is now almost completely taken for as a given.
Thus far Putin has never explicitly declared that he will run in the forthcoming elections. On the contrary, at the inauguration on the Russian Energy Week on Wednesday he has declared that he still has not decided whether he is going to run at all. However, his victory in the next Presidential campaign seems at present unquestionable. According to a poll whose results have been recently released by the statistic centre VTsIOM, Putin’s work in the past mandate is approved by 82% of Russians. According to the same poll, the electoral rate of Putin’s party, United Russia, has reached in September a year-high of 52.9%.