The Acid Test of Dissent in Russia

Huge demonstrations once again swept through Russia on June 12, as thousands took to the streets in over 160 cities to protest the corruption and authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin’s regime. This followed street protests by Russia’s emerging opposition in February and March that were the biggest in years.

What makes these latest protests especially potent is that they may have what the Russian opposition has long lacked: a leader. Dissident and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny planned the protests for Russia Day, a national holiday analogous to July 4.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, riot police arrested more than a thousand protesters. More were arrested in other Russian cities, from Kazan in the south to Vladivostok in the Far East. Chants of “Russia without Putin!” and “Putin is a thief!” were heard across the country.

The main protest in Moscow was originally approved for an area away from the Kremlin and the city center. The day before the protests, Navalny announced to his followers that he was unilaterally moving the location to Tverskaya Street, a large boulevard that terminates at Red Square. He asserted that government officials had leaned on audio-visual vendors not to contract with him or his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).

Authorities then announced that anyone caught displaying a political banner or sign or shouting a political slogan on Tverskaya Street would be arrested. Scores of riot police and National Guard enforced the threat as the protests began, seemingly picking out random members of the crowd—mostly teens and young adults—for arrest.

One arrest, however, was anything but random. Navalny himself was picked up just outside his apartment building on his way to the rally. His wife, Yulia Navalnaya, posted on Twitter through the account of the Atlantic Council’s Ben Nimmo: “Hi, Yulia Navalnaya here. Happy holiday. They arrested Aleksey in a raid. He asked me to pass on: the plans haven’t changed. Tverskaya.” She posted a similar message in Russian via her husband’s Twitter account. At the same time, electricity and Internet services to FBK’s offices were severed.

Witnesses say it was hard to estimate how many people joined the protests: The streets were already crowded with families enjoying the holiday, which featured demonstrations and reenactments of Russian military victories. Some reenactors joined in the protests. Moscow police say 5,000 people participated in the Tverskaya protests—the real number is likely higher.

Navalny has emerged as the preeminent face of the Russian opposition since he and others led large-scale protests in 2011-12. Those protests were met with more widespread brutality from police than Monday’s demonstrations were. Navalny was arrested at the time along with other leaders, including former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, a committed reformer, who was murdered outside the Kremlin in 2014.

Unlike Nemtsov, Navalny doesn’t have a sterling liberal reputation. He’s made comments about Chechens at a “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” rally that implied all members of the Muslim minority were religious radicals or gangsters. He’s also made insulting remarks about Georgians, for which he apologized. Most notably, he’s taken part in an annual Russian March, which unites nationalists and racial supremacists of all stripes.

His prominence and clear disfavor with the Kremlin has exposed him to danger. Navalny is still recovering from an attack with antiseptic dye known as “brilliant green” (zelyonka). The first time someone threw the chemical at his face in March, he dismissed it as no big deal. The second attack in April required hospital treatment, and Navalny says he’s lost about 80 percent of the sight in his right eye. Doctors say the dye was mixed with some other, caustic chemical and may cause permanent damage. After Monday’s protests, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail, where he is unlikely to receive medical attention for his eye.

The second attack came not long after a Moscow court banned him from running in next year’s presidential elections. In February, an appeals court upheld his conviction for embezzlement, which would preclude his candidacy under Russian law. The European Court of Human Rights had overturned the ruling, but their word carries no weight in Russian courts. To needle the government, Navalny sat in court as the judge read out his affirmed conviction, tweeting images of the original ruling to underline that the new opinion was a verbatim copy of the old one.

No matter if his name isn’t on any ballots, he decided to run anyway as a write-in candidate. And in any event, he’s more focused on building a durable, grassroots political network than wasting time and effort on rigged elections.

Physical safety aside, he has every reason to run for office. Earlier this year, he made a documentary exposing massive corruption perpetrated by Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and some of the country’s influential oligarchs. The video went viral in Russia, spawning the tens-of-thousands-strong February and March protests. To date, the video has over 22 million views. Medvedev’s popularity plummeted, as Navalny’s name recognition soared.

Navalny was in front of the cameras again in May, this time in a courtroom. One of Russia’s most prominent oligarchs, Alisher Usmanov, sued Navalny over his accusations against Medvedev, which implicated the billionaire. Navalny petitioned the court to open up property records and to put Medvedev on the stand: If his accusations were true, he could hardly be held liable. (Probably. Russian courts can be funny that way.)

The court refused the petition, but Navalny seemed, yet again, undeterred. He took selfies with the opposing counsel, Genrikh Padva, who once defended oligarch-cum-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He also took to his blog, which first elevated him to prominence, pointing out that his April attacker has been identified based on video that appeared on news broadcasts and has since been disseminated online. Although the assailant’s face is blurred, amateur sleuths think they have a positive ID.

Navalny agrees with his online allies: The perpetrator was likely a member of the South East Radical Bloc (SERB) named Alexandr Petrunko. Other SERB members, including the group’s leader, Igor Beketov, and a man who appears unblurred in the same video, Alexei Kulakov, claim the group had nothing to do with the attack.

The local police have opened an investigation but have yet to interview any witnesses or make any headway. Investigations into Nemtsov’s 2014 murder and two failed poisonings of persistent Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza have also produced nothing.

Navalny has little chance of winning next year, and not just because he’s a write-in candidate in a country whose last free and fair elections were in 2000. Despite Putin’s famously high approval rating, less than half of respondents in a recent poll said they’d vote for him if elections were tomorrow. As Natalia Antonova of Open Democracy Russia describes it, Putin’s platform in 2012 was all about stability—a prized commodity in topsy-turvy Russia. But his most recent term has been plagued by the Ukraine crisis, sanctions, painful inflation, and a sharp rise in poverty. That doesn’t mean unhappy voters would go for Navalny: The same poll indicates he’d get just 1 percent, way behind the Communists and right-wing nationalists.

Russian politics has been known to change overnight, though. According to Mark Galeotti of the European Council of Foreign Relations and the Institute of International Relations Prague, there are three different forms of opposition movement in Russia. Blue-collar Russians may be Navalny’s most natural allies: The rickety and slow economy has caused massive labor unrest, which helped propel the demonstrations in 2011-12 despite very loose organization and little leadership. The Communist party is the only group that has the nationwide machinery to organize such a large group of people, but for now its leadership is complacent. And Navalny’s movement is centered around him, with a diverse array of supporters who unite on an anti-corruption message, but not necessarily much else.

This might make Navalny seem like a Soviet-era dissident, standing athwart the regime, proud but powerless. But there are key differences. Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, and Sharansky couldn’t organize a movement the way Navalny has. As Galeotti also points out: “The dissident movement was born out of hopelessness. This movement is born of long-term hope.”

Navalny wants to be prepared in case the polls are wrong, and he wants to win supporters in case they’re right. When he’s not in court or lockup, he spends a lot of time out in public, surrounded by crowds, which opens him up to another attack. No problem: “The more of these incidents there are, the more [people] send us money.” And if the impossible happens? “Then Russia will have a president with a stylish white eye.”

Benjamin Parker is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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