Russian Winter Protests and Violations of the Right to Peaceful Protest
During the winter of 2021, the entire Russia saw the biggest protest wave in its modern history. It is estimated that only on January 23rd, over 300 thousand Russians have participated. The result of the monthly protest activity was severe - over 12 thousand people were detained across the entire country, many injured. Independent observers recorded many human rights violations against protesters and journalists. There were also reports that the police used torture during the interrogation processes. The level of political repressions which followed is terrifying and leaves many questions about the future of Russian protests in an extremely restricted and highly controlled political context.
What caused the protests?
The protest movement was induced by multiple sequences of events which generated a lot of public discontents. On January 17th, the leading oppositional figure – Alexei Navalny was arrested upon his arrival from Germany where he had been treated for a poison attack allegedly instigated by Russian secret services. The authorities justified his arrest by pointing out the fact that Navalny had breached the terms of the suspended prison sentence given to him in 2014. In 2014, Navalny and his brother had been found guilty of embezzling money, as they were accused of stealing money from two companies. Alexei Navalny has received a suspended sentence, while his brother Oleg was jailed for three and a half years. The opposition and Navalny`s supporters have claimed that this sentence is aimed to intimidate Putin`s critics.
Most recent protests, held on April 21st, spoke out against the inhumane treatment Navalny is receiving while being severely ill on a prison sick ward. Earlier this month, he announced a hunger strike due to having been denied a visit from his personal doctor to treat a growing numbness and pain in his back and legs. Shortly after, Navalny fell ill with a respiratory condition.
The return of Alexei and his following arrest in January 2021 has caused a backlash among his supporters, as they denounced that Navalny's arrest was unlawful and politically motivated. In Russia, Navalny is recognized as an unofficial leader of the Russian opposition as he is the most known critic of Putin`s regime. He is further known as an anti-corruption activist and his investigation videos of corrupt political elite have gained millions of views on YouTube.
Two days after his arrest, Navalny’s team has released an investigation video, which claims that President Putin is the owner of a $1,5 billion secret palace that was gifted to him by his wealthy friends in as a bribe. The investigation video depicted the richness of the palace, full of fancy furniture and expensive goods. The issue of corruption is not anything new for Russia, but the apparent luxury of the palace allegedly owned by the president angered ordinary Russians who struggle in everyday poverty, and motivated many to go to the streets. Another factor that united protesters was the idea of a future Russia which is democratic and free from corruption among the elites.
What happened on the days of the protests?
On the day of the protests, Russian citizens gathered peacefully on the streets of over 130 cities. The police and the local authorities were well informed about the organization of the protests. With the internet and mobile connection having been switched off in some parts of Moscow during the start of the protests, the authorities have been accused of manipulating the coordination of the movement. The police also used violence against the peaceful protesters and interrupted the work of journalists to prevent the scenes of police brutality from being depicted on camera. The cities which saw the biggest number of protesters were Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, which were also the cities where the police have been the most violent against demonstrators. Observers have also reported the use of violence against journalists, which directly violates the rights of the journalists. Most violations included illegal detention of reporters during the protests as well as physical abuse by the police which prevented the journalists from doing their work, simultaneously breaching people`s rights to impartial information.
One of the tactics used by the police was to randomly pull the protesters out of the crowd and detain them. While most of the protesters were simply marching peacefully in order not to attract police attention, many were still attacked and arrested. Once detained, they were put in a police van “avtozak”, where they had to wait to be sent to a special detention facility, sometimes not having access to water, food, or medical assistance for many hours.
Because of the winter protests, the police have detained over 12 thousand people. To make things worse, the limited capacity of the detention services meant that the rights of many Russians were severely abused. The most extreme situation was in Moscow, where the capacity of the detention facilities was not able to accept the number of detained citizens. The number of protesters was larger than that of beds in the cells, so many people had to take turns to get a few hours of sleep. Some protesters affirm that, as a result, they had to spend over 24 hours in a police van upon arrival at the facility before they could be formally accepted by the police department. That would mean over 24 hours in a closed space full of people without access to food, water, restrooms, lawyers, and medical help.
As a result of the winter wave of protests, thousands of Russians ended up in detention facilities under arrest. Activists who were detained and later released due to the limited capability of detention services, still had to pay large fines for joining an unsanctioned gathering, which is illegal according to Russian law. The police did not only target those who went on the streets but also arrested people who called on to protests publicly on social media. Many key opposition figures closely related to Navalny are still arrested and waiting for a trial due to urging people to join the unsanctioned protests. The western world has severely condemned the use of force by the police as well as the violations of the universal rights of protesters.
The political repressions also affected those citizens who were not detained by the police on the day of the protest. Many people who are employed in governmental structures such as schools, universities, theatres, etc., and who showed their support publicly on social media and/or attended the protests were forced to quit their jobs. Some students who expressed their support for the protest movement were expelled from the universities they were enrolled at.
The future of the Russian protests
On February 4th, Navalny’s team declared that it would temporarily stop calling supporters to the streets. This was due to the large number of people who suffered from attending the demonstrations, particularly among Navalny’s team, which paralyzed the activities of his network. Despite that, crowds still gathered for Valentine’s Day actions of February 14th, and last week (April 21st) to protest the inhumane treatment Navalny is currently receiving while ill in prison.
The number of protesters seen in last week’s demonstrations have shrunk in comparison to those seen earlier this year. The widespread use of violence and political repressions is predicted to continue to lower the number of people who publicly attend peaceful protests. Despite the growing discontent in the Russian society with Putin’s regime, future opposition protests might attract fewer activists. Yet, those people who do not want to participate in the actual protests might support the opposition by other means. They may do so by making donations or working as volunteers the civil society organizations which support the opposition.
The fear created by the authorities and the police plays a large role in controlling the masses and further restricting the political space for opposition. Yet, the increased scale of repressions could signify that the system is losing its confidence in maintaining the stability of Putin’s regime. The scale of discontent is growing despite government efforts to maintain its popularity.
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