By Karan Kochhar
Kremlin opposition leader, Alexei Navalny was arrested on 12th June 2017 for staging an unsanctioned rally in the Russian capital’s central street. This was the second time in three months that he was arrested for staging protests that were attended by thousands of people. The protest spread to over a hundred cities and by late evening, the Russian riot police had detained over fifteen hundred protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg alone.
Alexei Navalny is a politician and anti-corruption campaigner who leads a vociferous opposition against Putin’s inner circle by exposing corruption at the highest echelons of Kremlin. The protests mark the general public’s unhappiness relating to the corruption scandals of Putin’s inner circle and the political stagnation that is gripping Russia. Analysts believe that the movement led by Navalny might breathe some life into the dry political scenario of Russia.
Does freedom of speech exist only in theory?
Moscow authorities stated that the protesters were arrested and detained because they had disrupted the traditional re-enactment fair at Tverskaya Street. Critics of the administration believe that the arrests are a violation of the freedom of speech. The authorities have claimed that Navalny had been granted permission to hold a rally at a different location. Navalny had moved to Tverskaya Street of his own accord, which was an overt show of opposition directed at Vladimir Putin who was speaking at a gathering, a few hundred meters from where the arrests were made.
Regarding the large number of detentions, Sergei Nikitin, Director of Amnesty International Russia said that “Russia has broken its sad record for mass detentions by arresting more than one thousand people on the same day in Moscow alone.”
History repeats itself
Monday’s protests drew their ethos from the mass protests of 2011. The years between 2011 to 2013 witnessed an upheaval in the Russian civil society when tens of thousands of protesters came to the streets and criticised Putin’s candidacy for the presidency. Putin advanced his prospects by refusing to register liberal candidates and using the state media to his advantage. The public also felt cheated when it came to the allegations of fraud in the election process. Navalny was the opposition leader at that time.
Six years later, elections in Russia are due again. President Putin is likely to get another six-year term. Navalny recreated the past by calling for a protest in March this year. Almost sixty thousand protestors from over eighty cities responded to the call. More than seven thousand demonstrators attended the Moscow rally, out of which eight hundred and fifty were detained. Navalny was arrested after arriving at the rally and sentenced to fifteen days in prison. The protests were significant because they targeted the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for high-level corruption.
However, these protests were not just about the rampant corruption and the evidence which Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation unearthed over the last few years. Apart from the allegations against Dmitry Medvedev, prominent cases of alleged corruption include Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov. The protests were also about the economic stupor that the country has been facing for the past few years, the gradual attrition of democratic values in Russia and the mass demolition of apartments in Moscow.
A pseudo-democracy and a weak economy
Speaking to a New York Times reporter, Nikita Orlov, an 18-year student said that he was protesting against the autocratic regime working under the façade of democracy. “I came here because we have no democracy, our Parliament is not real, our politicians are not real, and our mass media is not real,” he said. Putin is seen to have no real opponents in the country as he has consolidated power over the past few years and dispensed with opponents. Even Navalny who declared his intention to run for President next year was sentenced to imprisonment for five years on charges of low-level embezzlement. Suppression of any sort of opposition against Putin is common in Russia.
Recession in Russia is already evident in the backdrop of economic sanctions, falling oil prices and weak demand for oil. In 2015, the Ruble fell by a whopping 125% against the US dollar. Lack of initiatives on the Kremlin’s part to boost industrial growth was the primary factor that urged people residing in industrial centres to come out on the streets. While living costs have shot up, wages in the industrial sector have remained stagnant over the past few years.
President Navalny? Maybe
The decrepit state of the Russian economy and democracy has struck a chord with Navalny’s agenda. He intends on initiating programmes to promote grass-root democracy in the country. His initiatives to unearth corruption in Putin’s close circles has triggered the largest protests Russia has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Judging by the support he garnered at the rally, Navalny has positioned himself in a place where he could prove to be a serious contender for the Russian presidency next year. In Navalny, the Russian public sees a political contender to Putin and a serious counter-weight to the autocratic regime that has dominated the country for the last two decades. The public took to the streets for the second time to unequivocally oppose the injustice of Putin’s rule, despite the fact that the March protests were brutally suppressed by the riot police.
Perhaps a Russian Spring is on the cards.
Featured Image Credits: Visual Hunt
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