‘We have to fight for our rights’ Is Russia ready to defy Putin?

The scene – played out last Saturday as police met a protest about opposition access to the Moscow local elections with the largest number of arrests in recent Russian history – was a striking distillation of the contradictions of life under mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who in recent years has offered Muscovites an impressive programme of urban beautification while keeping extremely strict limitations on political freedom.

On the terrace of a recently renovated market hall overlooking Moscow’s Trubnaya Square, lounge music beats played as well-dressed customers drank from bottles of craft beer or cradled glasses of Aperol spritz. Below them, as the concrete glowed in the last rays of sunshine, hundreds of riot police chased groups of young people through the square and into neighbouring streets, roughly bundling those they caught into waiting police vans. A booming voice from a loudspeaker on one of the police buses cut through the music on the terrace, threatening the protesters with arrest.

The protests are the biggest the capital has seen for nearly a decade. The issue of independent and opposition candidates being barred from standing in September’s elections to the Moscow city parliament is relatively niche, but a broader, more existential discontent has coalesced around it. This Saturday, central Moscow was again thronged with protesters, who turned out despite the knowledge that they risked arrest, court cases and prison terms.

Mostly young people gather in central Moscow to demand that opposition candidates be included on ballots for local elections next September. Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/AP

Sergei Orlov, a 33-year-old IT worker, said he hadn’t been to many demonstrations but had been angered by last weekend’s crackdown. “My mother taught me to vote, and these elections show that even that’s not possible,” he said, walking with hundreds of protesters near Pushkin Square, as riot police looked on.

Rainy weather combined with the strong police response to last weekend’s rally meant that the numbers of protesters were lower than had been expected. Nevertheless, the anger being expressed suggests that the bargain president Vladimir Putin allowed Sobyanin to make with Russia’s capital is beginning to disintegrate, just as Putin’s popularity across Russia is sliding. The aggressive line the authorities have taken could be counterproductive, but concessions may start a spiral effect that will chip away at the Kremlin’s grip on power.

Leading the protests are associates of campaigner Alexei Navalny, whose team of investigators shine a light on rampant corruption among Russia’s elite. Their well-documented and slickly produced videos contain allegations that are hard for the Kremlin to brush off. Punishments for Navalny’s activities in recent years have included a ban on appearing on state television, repeated court cases, the jailing of his brother for several years, an attack with green paint that almost made him blind in one eye, and a refusal to allow him on to the ballot paper for the 2018 presidential election. He was jailed for 30 days last month to keep him away from this round of protests, and last week suffered what his lawyers claim could have been a poisoning attempt in jail.

A group of Navanly’s associates are emerging from his shadow and proving equally problematic. Lyubov Sobol, a 31-year-old lawyer who has worked with Navalny since 2011, planned to stand as an independent in the Moscow elections and collected the thousands of voter signatures required, only to be told, like others, that an “expert committee” had found many of the signatures to be fake, and her candidacy invalid. Refusing to take no for an answer, she was carried out of the electoral committee office on the sofa where she had planted herself. Videos of her berating electoral officials about their corruption have gone viral.

“Of course, they understand that if they let even one independent into the Moscow city parliament, it will become a completely different place,” she told the Observer last week. “There is no discussion about any important issues there at the moment.”

Sobol is three weeks into a hunger strike over not being allowed to stand, and was speaking from a camp bed at the independent candidates’ campaign headquarters. Her voice still had its steely resolve, but she spoke at a fraction of her usual volume, and complained of a spinning head and kidney pain. She is determined to continue her protest, however.

When she began her hunger strike, even many of her supporters thought it was a strange battle to pick, but the protest is now about more than a mere local parliament vote, and Sobol has become one of its key figures. On Saturday, she gathered her strength to set out for the protest, but was detained before it even started. “Who are you scared of? Are you scared of your own citizens, of a woman on her 20th day of hunger strike?” she shouted as riot police bundled her into a waiting van.

Five years ago, Putin boosted his approval ratings with the annexation of Crimea. There is no such option today. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/Tass

The political mood now is reminiscent of the last major protest season to hit the country, in late 2011 and 2012, when the illusion that Russia could be heading for liberalisation under Dmitry Medvedev was dispelled by Putin’s announcing his return to the Kremlin. Then, Putin’s sliding ratings were boosted by a new conservative ideology, and later by the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Demonstrators were painted as an anti-patriotic “fifth column” opposing the pro-Putin, patriotic majority.

Alongside the stick came the carrot of a new Moscow: landscaped parks, pedestrianised streets and a food and drink scene that wowed football fans who came for the World Cup last year. For many in the capital, everyday life really did become more pleasant. But if 2018 was the summer of football-themed street parties, international fraternity and pride in the new Moscow, 2019 is shaping up to be the summer of police crackdowns.

“The period of Crimea euphoria is over; the five years when the population was mobilised have come to an end,” said Lev Gudkov, director of Levada-Center, Russia’s only independent polling agency. The majority of Russians still see the west as an enemy, he said, but far fewer are willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the confrontation.

Real incomes across Russia have dropped by more than 10% over the past five years, and an unpopular pension reform last year led to a 20% drop in Putin’s approval rating. Many of the 64% who still support the president do so for lack of viable alternatives, and it is hard to imagine a “second Crimea” that could provide Putin with a new boost. In the provinces, discontent is fuelled by economic hardship and a lack of prospects, but in the absence of an organised opposition network, protests that do erupt are usually over local issues such as waste disposal or city planning, rather than linked to concrete political demands.

The Moscow phenomenon is different. Demonstrations this summer have been noticeably more youth-led than those in 2012. Many of those protesting are young people who are doing reasonably well financially, but want a different kind of country.

“I have been to a lot of protests and this time I really noticed the generation factor,” said Yevgenia Albats, a veteran journalist who edits New Times magazine. “There were few people there my age; they were all young, and they’re not scared.”

Young people in Putin’s Russia have it better, relative to their elders, than their peers in western Europe, Gudkov said. While the richest segment of most western societies is the pre-pension age group, in Russia, 35-year-olds have the most cash. They have been better able to take advantage of opportunities for career growth and financial enrichment than their Soviet-schooled parents. For many years, a sense of pride in a resurgent Russia, steady economic growth and improvements in everyday life kept this young urban people satisfied.

Now, many are tired of the anti-western rhetoric and keen for change. They are also wary of the arbitrary rules of Russian life – the way the tentacles of the state can appear amid the new Moscow of bike lanes and artisan eateries and seize victims without warning.

The sizable protests earlier this year over the detention of journalist Ivan Golunov on obviously fabricated drugs charges were a sign of broader irritation at what might once have been a niche issue troubling only rights activists and fellow journalists. In that case, the authorities stepped back and freed Golunov, and they have also made concessions in a number of other recent cases of single-issue protests. This is harder to do in the case of the Moscow elections, however, as it would be seen as a sign of weakness and could threaten the Kremlin’s monopoly on political life. On the other hand, cracking down hard could prove counterproductive.

Opposition politician Lyubov Sobol is on a hunger strike to protest over her exclusion from the elections. Photograph: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters

“There’s a lot of panic and they don’t know what to do,” said Sobol. “They don’t have a good solution.”

The protesters, on the whole, have remained peaceful. The most violent act of last week’s protest came when a man threw a bin in the vague direction of riot police. The authorities, on the other hand, have gone in hard. People were dragged kicking and screaming into police vans; some were hit with batons, and one man suffered a fractured leg. He said he’d been out jogging and had not even been involved in the protest when police pushed him to the ground.

That was only a taste of what might come if things get more tense, or if the protesters themselves start to get violent: there were no water cannon, rubber bullets or even tear gas. Still, authorities have warned Muscovites that peaceful protest could have serious, long-term consequences.

Sobyanin, in an interview with the television channel owned by his Moscow administration last week, thanked police for carrying out their “duty” and accused the protesters of engaging in “pre-planned and well-prepared mass unrest”. The opposition leaders had, he claimed falsely, called on protesters to storm the mayoralty, and it was only the fine work of the police that had stopped such an eventuality from occurring. This suggested that the authorities could be preparing for a real crackdown.

Every day last week, in a sign that authorities are desperate to squeeze the oxygen out of the protests and warn people that taking part carries a real danger of jail, there was a new move against various pillars of the opposition. On Thursday, independent television station TV Rain, which has been live-streaming the protests, said it had received notice of a sudden tax inspection. The following day, there were reports that Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation could be investigated for money-laundering.

Nine people were arrested for “mass unrest”, which can carry 15-year jail terms. It has been hinted that police will round up draft-dodgers among men arrested at the protests. With full control of the levers of state, Putin can create an upside-down world where anti-corruption investigators are investigated for corruption and those beaten up by police are accused of provoking violence.

Already, the protests may have put an end to the widespread idea that Sobyanin wanted to present himself as a potential national political figure and possibly even a compromise solution to the fraught dilemma of who will take over from Putin when his latest presidential term runs out in 2024. By giving into the demands of protesters, Sobyanin would lose ground to people around Putin with security services backgrounds who favour a crackdown.

“They are afraid to be considered traitors, because every offer to compromise with protesters is seen as potential capitulation,” said political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann. “Their importance was that they kept the people politically loyal, or at least passive, by creating a glittering new Moscow. If they are not succeeding in this, what is the need for them?”

The debate about what comes next is vexing not just for the authorities, but also for the protest leaders. It is now clear that the official response is likely to be repression and potentially lengthy jail sentences, even for peaceful protesters. In calling people to attend “unsanctioned” protests, are organisers pursuing the only means of effecting real change, or irresponsibly raising the stakes?

Nobody is in any doubt that a real uprising along the lines of Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution would be aggressively put down. Now that Putin has cleared the field of any real opposition, his mantra that a change in government will lead to chaos and unrest is probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. And while Navalny is a charismatic politician with broad potential appeal, he has low approval nationally. Many of those at the Moscow protests don’t support him, but are merely irritated by the cynicism of Putin’s Kremlin.

If, in the medium term, Putin does lose his grip on power, the threat is more likely to come from inside the Kremlin than from the streets. Sobol spoke of “a wonderful Russia of the future” – where courts and press are free and corruption is minimised – but it is hard to imagine this coming about without serious violence and state collapse. “I have no illusions, but anything can happen,” said Sobol, her voice weak but determined. “Things will change sooner or later. We’re doing everything to make sure it happens soon. If we’re not going to leave and we’re going to live here, we have to fight for our rights.”

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