Moscows peaceful protests enrage the Kremlin because its only tool is violence | Alexey Kovalev

Thousands are calling for opposition candidates to be allowed to stand in the citys election, says Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev

On a typical weekday, Moscow is a modern, rapidly developing metropolis, a far cry from its dark, litter-strewn, dilapidated self 20 years ago. Its formerly abandoned industrial parks are hipster havens serving artisanal cocoa milk lattes and avocado bruschetta to crowds that wouldnt look out of place in east London or Brooklyn, while its public transport system is one of the cheapest and most efficient in the world.

But by the weekend, downtown Moscow is a warzone. For several weeks, Muscovites have been peacefully protesting in the streets, and the state has responded with unprecedented repression. Armies of masked riot police greatly outnumbering the protesters are viciously beating them with rubber batons. There have been multi-pronged pre-dawn raids on protesters homes and summary arrests of opposition leaders. Military recruiting officers have been hunting for draft dodgers at rallies and courts are dispensing harsh sentences for offences such as throwing an empty plastic bottle at the police. Universities are threatening to expel students spotted at protests.


Who is Alexei Navalny?

Born in 1976 just outside Moscow, Alexei Navalny is a lawyer-turned-campaigner whose Anti-Corruption Foundation carries out investigations into the wealth of Vladimir Putins inner circle.

He started out as a Russian nationalist, but emerged as the main leader of Russia’s democratic opposition during the wave of protests that led up to the 2012 presidential election, and has since been a constant thorn in the Kremlins side.

Navalny is barred from appearing on state television, but has used social media to his advantage. A 2017 documentary accusing the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of corruption received more than 30m views on YouTube within two months of release.

He has been repeatedly arrested and jailed by the authorities. The European court of human rights ruled that Russia violated Navalny’s rights by holding him under house arrest in 2014. Election officials formally barred him from running for president in 2018 due to an embezzlement conviction that he claims was politically motivated. Navalny told the commission its decision would be a vote not against me, but against 16,000 people who have nominated me, against 200,000 volunteers who have been canvassing for me.

There has also been a physical price to pay. In April 2017, he was hospitalised after being attacked with green dye that nearly blinded him in one eye, and in July 2019 was taken from jail to hospital with symptoms that one of his doctors said could indicate poisoning.

His main strength in opposition has been in bringing large numbers of protesters out on to Russia’s streets. At times, Navalny has seemed to find short spells in jail an energising rather than demoralising experience. There were some others in the jail, and for all of them it was their first protest in their lives,” he once said. “When they saw me walking past, they were calling out, Whens the next protest? They werent asking if there would be one, they wanted to know when.

Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/AP

Egor Zhukov, a political science student, was arrested and charged with mass rioting (a criminal offence that carries up to eight years of prison) for making a gesture pointing to the right, according to prosecutors. They also brought a custody challenge against a couple who brought their infant son to what was supposed to be a peaceful rally, threatening to have child protection services seize him for them endangering his physical and mental safety. Even moderate Kremlin loyalists were aghast at such vindictiveness.

State TV offered its usual dose of lies and smears against the protesters, while Moscows authorities are busy distracting Muscovites with hastily cobbled together food and music festivals with a solid lineup of rock stars. Some of the biggest names on the bill refused to participate for political reasons, with Max Pokrovsky, the lead singer of Nogu Svelo!, joining the protests instead.

But none of the scare tactics and attempts to distract Moscows youth from protesting with state-sponsored entertainment worked. On 9 August, an anonymous Telegram account linked to the police doxxed thousands of people who turned up at previous rallies or signed petitions for independent candidates. The next day, 50,000 people came out to protest: the biggest crowd in years.

What makes Moscows protests unique is the almost surreal peacefulness on the protesters part. State propaganda chose the familiar route of justifying police violence: look, TV pundits and officials said, in Paris, Hamburg and Hong Kong riot police used teargas, water cannon and rubber bullets, seriously injuring some, so were going easy on you! These false equivalences couldnt be less relevant. Unlike Paris, not a single shop window in Moscow has been smashed, not a single car torched. State media talked about business losses caused by the protests, but failed to mention that it was Moscows authorities that ordered cafes and shops to shut down (and even degraded cellular service in the city centre on purpose).

A series of protest rallies in downtown Moscow culminated in an epic crackdown with more than a 1,000 people arrested on 27 July. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

And unlike the gilets jaunes(yellow vests)grand demands, the oppositions goals seem almost insignificant in comparison: let opposition candidates stand in the Moscow City Duma council elections on 8 September. The crisis could have been averted at any point in the past few weeks without any major consequences for the authorities: independent candidates, some of whom are associated with Alexei Navalnys Anti-Corruption Foundation, could have been registered to compete in the election and lose; some could even win a token seat in one of the most powerless local assemblies in Russia, which until now very few people cared about: the turnout at the 2014 elections was about 20%. Its not uncommon for opposition candidates to win local elections, only to be co-opted or quietly unseated later.

Instead, opposition candidates were met with such forceful resistance that it became clear that the Kremlin wont allow even the symbolic electoral presence of what its ideologues call non-systemic opposition. In order to register to run in an election, a non-partisan applicant has to gather a number of signatures from his supporters, an arcane, opaque procedure designed to discourage participation. When some opposition candidates did manage to gather the required signatures, their applications were thrown out by the electoral commission under the most cynical pretences. The refusal to register their preferred candidates led to a series of protest rallies in downtown Moscow in mid-July which culminated in an epic crackdown with more than 1,000 people arrested on 27 July.

The massive criminal investigation into the new generation of Russias protest movement has been dubbed the new Bolotnaya Square case, after a 2012 protest rally which resulted in a violent stand-off with the police and several dozen criminal convictions for the protesters. What makes it different this time, however, is that a new civic infrastructure has sprung up specifically in response to government crackdowns: pro bono lawyers working around the clock to provide legal assistance for the arrested protesters, independent websites such as OVD-Info and MediaZona tracking down the arrests and covering the sham trials, and a much more active civil society that is no longer willing to put up with attacks on independent reporters such as Meduzas Ivan Golunov.

Yet to change are the tired old men in the Kremlin, thinking that they can solve the problem the same way theyve always done: with rubber batons and mass arrests. In the next few years, they could find themselves sorely disappointed.

Alexey Kovalev is head of investigations at Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet

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