Anti-Putin protesters plan next move as jailed opponent considers election bid

Shaun Walker Moscow
More than 1,000 people were detained after protests in Moscow, including Alexei Navalny, who received 15 days in prison. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

“Nobody is scared of going to jail, but we have work to do,” said Kira Yarmysh, spokeswoman for Alexei Navalny, as she waited for the Russian opposition politician to be delivered to court for an appeal hearing on Thursday.

Navalny, who was marched to his hearing handcuffed to a stout police officer, saw his appeal rejected, and will spend the next week behind bars, serving out a 15-day sentence after he was arrested at last weekend’s protest in Moscow, one of more than 1,000 people detained by police in the capital alone.

There were protests in dozens of Russian cities last Sunday, called by Navalny over allegations of corruption against prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.

They were the biggest since a wave of protests in 2011 and 2012, and for the first time since that wave was crushed there is an air of uncertainty on the Russian political scene.

Navalny, a nationalist turned liberal who has published several investigations into the huge wealth of Valdimir Putin’s inner circle, has declared he wants to run in the election due next March. Putin is widely expected to stand again, and win another six-year term, which would take him to 2024 and almost a quarter-century of rule over Russia.

But after last week’s events both the authorities and the opposition have much on their minds. The Kremlin has to decide whether to launch a crackdown or try to weather the storm, while Navalny and his movement must work out how far they can push the Kremlin.

In the weeks prior to the protest, Navalny toured a number of Russian cities to set up volunteer headquarters to help run his campaign.

“We’re doing everything you’re supposed to do in an electoral campaign,” he said in an interview before last weekend’s rally. “We want to force them to allow me on to the ballot.”

Even Navalny’s own team were surprised at how many people came to the protest, and they now fear that if they organise new demonstrations, which usually fail to receive official permission to go ahead from the authorities, the arrests will continue.

Several organisations are attempting to keep the current wave going. Some groups unaffiliated with Navalny have called for a protest on Red Square today, while others have called for a repeat of last week’s “stroll” along Tverskaya, Moscow’s main street.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch living in exile in London, has called for protests on 29 April. But Yarmysh said Navalny’s team were most likely to wait until early in the summer before calling another demonstration.

“The problem is that we know that the minute we organise anything, that’s going to be another 15 days in jail for Alexei, and we want to focus on the pre-electoral campaign,” she said.

On Thursday, the offices of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation were still sealed off, after police and plainclothes officers raided them the evening after the protest and were filmed removing computers and other hardware from the building.

Yarmysh said all information about ongoing corruption investigations was stored securely but that the office’s closure had affected the foundation’s work. In a nearby office, lawyers and volunteers were helping relatives of those who had been arrested with paperwork and legal advice.

On Thursday, Putin compared the protests in Russia to the Maidan revolution in Ukraine and the Arab spring, both of which the Kremlin has previously characterised as being directed from the west. The Russian president said he was in favour of fighting corruption but did not address the specific allegations against Medvedev, and made a show of spending the day with his prime minister in the Arctic, making it clear that that job is safe for now. Medvedev has made no official response to the corruption allegations.

One lawyer defending some of those arrested, who did not want to be named, said police were searching for people involved in the more violent episodes last weekend and could launch a whole range of cases with potentially long prison terms at the end of them. “There’s a chance that this will end up very serious, and make the Bolotnaya cases look like child’s play.” After a protest in May 2012 on central Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, a number of protesters we given lengthy jail terms.

The defining characteristic of the protests last week was the presence of many very young Russians. “There were children there who were 16, or even 14,” said the lawyer. “These kids don’t remember Bolotnaya. I think it was a bit irresponsible to call them out without telling them there was a real chance of being detained or beaten by police.”

Navalny’s video about Medvedev has now been watched more than 16 million times on YouTube, and the politician has been successful at winning over a younger audience.

“Those under 25 grew up with the internet. It’s not that they don’t watch TV, but they watch it differently,” wrote analyst Ekaterina Schulmann in a recent column. “They find programmes on YouTube, and get their news from social media. That means the TV propaganda bypasses them by, and even if they listen they don’t understand what they’re being told, because our propaganda is all aimed at Soviet [era] people.”

The authorities are fighting back in the classrooms. Over the past week, a new genre of video has begun to appear online, as students across Russia make clandestine films of their school or university teachers lecturing them on politics.

In Tomsk, one university professor told his students: “If there is no corruption in a state, it means the state is pointless.” In Samara, students were pulled from lessons to a large hall, where they were shown an educational film about the “bloody battle” that could be about to take place in Russia. “Experts say that all extremists have common characteristics: they have no morals and do not accept social norms,” said the film’s narrator as footage of Navalny was shown on the screen. Many of the videos show confident students arguing back against teachers, in a sign that the Kremlin may have its work cut out to silence the new generation of angry Russians.

Discussions have taken place during recent months over whether or not to allow Navalny to take part in the election next year, but while there were some who thought the opposition leader could create a sense of competition without seriously challenging Putin, most in the Kremlin believe him too dangerous to be allowed to run.

In 2012 oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov stood against Putin on a campaign that emphasised liberal values and pro-business policies but offered no direct criticism of Putin. It is possible that the Kremlin will put up a similar “semi-opposition” candidate next year.

“The problem when there’s no competition is that it’s hard to get people to come out to vote,” said one source close to the Kremlin. “So they will need to find someone to stand against Putin, but they want someone who plays within particular rules, and knows the limits. Navalny does not play by any rules.”

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