About 50,000 people filled the streets of Moscow over the weekend for the fifth straight week of demonstrations, making it the largest Russian protest movement of the past decade.
The movement seeks ballot access for independent candidates in Moscow’s September 8 elections. It has grown far beyond Moscow’s borders, attracting broad public support and celebrity sponsorship, along with the rising threat of a crackdown from the Kremlin.
🔥🔥A fantastic shot of the 40k pic.twitter.com/aL1rdn5J07
— Khodorkovsky Center (@mbk_center) August 10, 2019
The Moscow Times reported on Saturday that the protesters now have majority polling support from city residents. Authorities are nibbling around the edges of the movement, swooping in quickly against those who violate strict ordinances governing political activism, but the arrests and citations have done little to blunt the momentum of the demonstrations. According to the report:
The rally included performances by the techno duo IC3PEAK and the popular rapper Face. Moscow City Hall had barred the musical performers but organizers said the acts would still take the stage.
Ahead of Saturday’s protest, masked police searched an office used by opposition activist Lyubov Sobol and took her in for questioning, she wrote on Twitter.
“I won’t make it to the protest. But you know what to do without me….Russia will be free!” Sobol said.
Eight people have been detained so far at the Moscow protest, the OVD-Info police-monitoring website said.
Several other Russian cities, including St. Petersburg, are also staging pickets in solidarity with Moscow’s opposition candidates. Eighty-six have been detained at the St. Petersburg rally and 11 were detained in Rostov-on-Don, OVD-Info said.
Independent journalist Alexey Kovalev noted with glee at the UK Guardian on Monday that the Moscow establishment’s attempt to distract the public with a music festival over the weekend failed as many of Russia’s biggest musicians either refused to perform or actively joined the protesters.
Kovalev accused the city of shutting down businesses and deliberately degrading cell phone service in the city center so the protesters could be blamed for inflicting great financial harm upon Moscow, and castigated the authorities for using intimidation tactics against individual demonstrators, including doxing them and threatening to take one couple’s infant child away.
He predicted these tactics would fail and the struggle to get a few independents on the ballot for some not-terribly-powerful city positions would blossom into a serious challenge to the Russian establishment nationwide.
Police detained 136 people on Saturday, including a group of about 30 teenagers, for holding an unauthorized march after the properly permitted rally. The teenagers were soon released with assistance from the Moscow human rights office.
Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s communications agency, on Sunday announced that it has asked YouTube and its parent company Google to stop providing publicity for “illegal mass protests.” The agency said failure to comply would be interpreted as willful “interference in [Russia’s] sovereign affairs” and “obstruction of democratic elections in Russia.”
Reuters noted that Roskomnadzor has used regulatory pressure against Google and its subsidiaries for political purposes in the past, including a similar situation in which YouTube was pressured into removing a political ad from opposition leader Alexei Navalny on the grounds that it violated Russian campaign laws.
The Russian protests may have grown huge and resisted official pressure to whittle them down, but thus far they have not succeeded in getting those independent Moscow candidates on the ballot. One of them, Lyubov Sobol, has been on a hunger strike for over a month. She was taken in for questioning shortly before the Saturday rally began.
“I won’t make it to the protest. But you know what to do without me,” she told her followers on Twitter before she was dragged away by a squad of masked police officers. “Russia will be free!”
Sobol was on her way to a rally last week when the police hauled her out of a taxi and took her in for questioning. She collected far more than the required number of signatures to get on the Moscow ballot, but the electoral commission claimed enough of them were “not correct” to keep her off. Her suspiciously well-timed bouts of “questioning” by the police ostensibly pertain to pressuring another candidate from running in her district and diluting the anti-establishment vote.
Sobol, an ally of the frequently incarcerated Alexei Navalny, became a star of the protest movement after a peaceful rally was broken up by baton-wielding police officers in late July. The current mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, muttered something about how the activists “compelled the police to use force” by blocking roads with a “pre-planned and well prepared” outburst of “mass unrest.”
The demonstrations have only grown larger since then, despite opposition leaders voicing fears they will be jailed and kept from participating in Russian politics for inciting “riots.” Among the many parallels between the Moscow marches and current unrest in Hong Kong, the Russian government has been using its state media to portray the demonstrators as puppets or willing agents of sinister foreign powers.
The Moscow Times reported that over 2,300 demonstrators have been detained over the summer, a number likely to rise as the Russian legislature prepares to further restrict the venues where they are permitted to hold rallies. The movement has stubbornly resisted efforts to push them out of the limelight and compel them to march in obscure locations where they can be more easily ignored.