Across Russian, thousands demonstrated -- and were arrested by police armed with stun guns and batons -- this weekend as well, in support of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, and voicing anger over falling living standards, shrinking political freedoms, corruption, "a skewed court system and rigged elections" and a political system that is rigged before "another round of fraudulent elections", possibly this spring and no later than next fall. Pictured: Police detain a protestor in Moscow on January 31, 2021. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)
Aleksei Navalny, opposition leader, anti-corruption activist and fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, returned to Russia on January 17 after recovering for five months in Germany from having been poisoned with a military grade nerve agent, Novichok. It was an event widely reported to have been an assassination attempt by Russian state agents.
Upon landing, Navalny was immediately arrested on charges that he had violated the parole terms from a suspended sentence received in 2014 for alleged fraud, a conviction that the European Court of Human Rights ruled was "arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable".
Upon his arrest, Navalny was denied access to a lawyer, and -- after a hearing that took place in a police station, which only pro-Kremlin media were allowed to attend -- jailed for an initial term of 30 days. He is due to go on trial on February 2.
"It seems," Navalny said about the proceedings, "that the grandpa in the bunker is so afraid of everything that they demonstratively ripped apart the code of criminal procedure and threw it in the trash."
Navalny has been in and out of Russian jails more than ten times since 2011, when he first became the face of Russian opposition to Putin and coined the phrase that the ruling United Russia party was "the party of crooks and thieves". In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Russian authorities' arrests of Navalny in 2012 and 2014 had caused "several violations" of his rights and been politically motivated. In 2013, Navalny was allowed, surprisingly, to run for mayor of Moscow, where he came in second after the Kremlin-backed candidate, Sergei Sobyanin, in elections that Navalny called "deliberately falsified." When he wanted to run again in the 2018 presidential elections, he was barred from the ballot.
On January 19, just two days after his arrest, Navalny's anti-corruption investigation team released a video report, "Putin's Palace" -- subtitled in English and well worth watching -- alleging that Putin had built a gigantic 17,691 square meter palace on the Black Sea at an estimated cost of $1.37 billion, paid for by Putin's cronies "with the largest bribe in history". The palace is complete with a huge pool, saunas, spa, gym, hairdresser, casino, underground ice hockey rink, theater, hookah room, vineyards, $26,000 couches, and $52,000 tables.
"We came up with this investigation, while I was in intensive care," Navalny said in the video, "but we immediately agreed that we would release it when I returned home, to Russia, to Moscow, because we do not want the main character of this film to think that we are afraid of him and that I will tell about his worst secret while I am abroad."
The video has attracted more than 100 million views on YouTube and probably played a role in mobilizing street protests across Russia against Navalny's arrest. It is estimated that on January 23, more than 100,000 people took to the streets in what were reported as the largest anti-government demonstrations in seven years. Protesters even turned out in Russia's most remote cities, such as the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk, where 150 protesters took to the streets in minus 52 degrees Celsius (minus 61.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
Police arrested an estimated 4,000 people amid widespread reports of police violence, including beatings, although, according to Human Rights Watch, the vast majority of the protesters were peaceful.
Thousands demonstrated -- and were arrested by police armed with stun guns and batons -- this weekend as well, voicing anger over falling living standards, shrinking political freedoms, corruption, "a skewed court system and rigged elections" and a political system that is rigged before "another round of fraudulent elections", possibly this spring and no later than next fall.
"Time and time again, Russian authorities have suppressed free speech and peaceful protest through police brutality, violence, and mass arrests and January 23 was no exception," said Damelya Aitkhozhina, a researcher on Russia at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities understand their obligations to respect fundamental human rights and choose not just to ignore them but to trample all over them."
Following the protests, police raided Navalny's home and offices. According to authorities, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and others are facing fines of up to 4 million rubles ($53,000) for not having deleted posts calling for Russians to demonstrate.
Although Navalny has been opposing Putin unsuccessfully for at least a decade, the current protests, especially if they continue and grow, may actually have a chance of making a dent in Putin's power base. Putin, ironically, may largely have himself to thank. If it had not been for the arrest and jailing of Navalny, the current protest movement might have remained dormant.
When Navalny revealed that he had been poisoned by state agents, Russians did not take to the streets in support of him, even though an attempted assassination by the state on Putin's fiercest critic is a huge scandal, even by Russian standards. People, however, remained apathetic or fearful.
In a late 2020 poll, performed by the Levada center, a respected independent Russian non-governmental research organization -- so unpopular with Putin that it has been forced to register as a foreign agent -- 33% of Russians said that they considered Putin to be "man of the year," whereas only 5 % said the same of Navalny. Now, Putin's arrest of Navalny and the clampdown on his organization, have brought renewed impetus to the protest movement and mobilized thousands -- especially young people -- for Navalny and against the government.
In addition, Navalny's arrest comes at an all-time low for Russians, 88% of whom, for the first time since 1991, according to Levada, called the outgoing year more difficult for the country than the previous one. Sixty-five per cent said this year was more difficult than the previous year for them and their families, the highest figure since 1998. Such dissatisfaction could, by itself, be enough to fuel a protest movement, but coupled with Navalny's arrest and the soaring corruption in the country, especially with the latest revelations about Putin's palace, Putin might be in for a lot more than he had bargained for when he placed Navalny under arrest.
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.