Kremlin blocks new Bolotnaya rally as Russia’s opposition movement withers

Russian opposition activists carry portraits of activists and placards reading 'Freedom to the prisoners of 06 May 2012' during a rally in support of freedom of press in downtown Moscow. April 13, 2014. Source: EPA

Russian opposition activists carry portraits of activists and placards reading 'Freedom to the prisoners of 06 May 2012' during a rally in support of freedom of press in downtown Moscow. April 13, 2014. Source: EPA

The Kremlin has refused to allow Russia’s opposition to hold a rally on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on May 6 – the day when three years ago a rally controversially ended in clashes with police. Meanwhile, opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny's Progress Party has had its registration revoked. Political commentators say that everything that has happened to the opposition since May 6, 2012 has greatly reduced the potential for protest in Russian society.

The opposition will not be able to hold a rally in support of the "Bolotnaya Prisoners" (the protesters who received either actual or suspended prison terms for their alleged part in disturbances at a demonstration on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012). An application for a rally in the center of the city with an expected participation of 15,000 people has been rejected by the Moscow mayor's office.

The authorities sought to justify their decision by citing crowding in the city center due to the preparations for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and instead offered the organizers a venue in the northwest of Moscow.

However, the opposition refused to consider the option of holding the event on the outskirts of the city. "It is strange to hold a rally, which is dedicated to the events on Bolotnaya Square, on the outskirts. This is kind of absurd," said one of the organizers, member of the Protest Actions Committee (KPD) Alexander Ryklin, speaking to RBTH.

But the KPD is not going to give up on Bolotnaya and warns the authorities that protesters will still take to the site on May 6, because "so far we have not been banned from visiting the square," said Ryklin. "There will not be any organized event there, we do not plan to expose people and break the law. We are merely prepared to come," Ryklin added, referring to himself and the other members of the committee.


Echoes of Bolotnaya

The main demand of the rally was intended to be the release of 12 people convicted in the so-called "Bolotnaya Case," almost all of whom received up to four years in prison on charges of "violence against the authorities." Legal proceedings are under way against a total of 34 people at the moment, but the list is still growing, with Natalya Pelevina, opposition leader Alexei Navalny's representative in the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, having charges filed against her on April 18.

Besides her association with Navalny, Pelevina is also a member of the RPR-Parnas (Republican Party of Russia – People’s Freedom Party) party and a lobbyist for the "Magnitsky Act,” a U.S. bill that levied sanctions against Russian judges, law enforcement officers and others accused of involvement in the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow jail in 2009 after uncovering a massive fraud involving Russian officials.

At the same time, another member of RPR-Parnas, Kirill Khrustalyov (in charge of social networks for the same election campaign), had his home searched.

On April 28, Navalny himself came under attack, when his Progress Party had its state registration revoked. The Ministry of Justice said in a statement that the party had violated the law by allegedly failing to register its regional branches in half of the subjects of the Russian Federation within the required period, hence its registration was canceled.

The opposition leader described the non-judicial decision as a "legal exclusive" on his blog, and argued that it was a "reaction to the creation of the Democratic coalition and, most importantly, to our very specific plans for the elections." Neither Navalny nor his spokeswoman Kira Yarmush responded to a request for comment by RBTH.

The “Bolotnaya Prisoners” did not benefit from the recent amnesty in honor of the WWII 70th anniversary, since they have been accused of violence against law enforcers, and according to independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, they stand no chance of release.

Oreshkin told RBTH that both the exclusion from the amnesty and the cancellation of the Progress Party's registration indicate fear of the opposition, which the government fears could take advantage of the situation.

"The economy is not improving; on 29 April, the Economic Development Ministry published data on the real earnings of the population – they have dropped by 8.3 percent compared to last year. Things are bad in international relations. The anti-Western rhetoric is beginning to pall, too," said Oreshkin.

Opposition movement ‘scattered’

However, he said, the opposition "is strongly scattered" in comparison with 2012, and the protest movement is "disappointed," with several key figures having left Russia since then. In order to avoid political persecution, State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev went to the U.S. in the fall of 2014, and on April 30, a criminal case over a large-scale embezzlement was opened against him. In April 2015, environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova moved with her family to Estonia, fearing Kremlin reprisals.

Both factors – the awareness of the futility of protests, "which have not led to any significant changes," and the intimidation of activists, who are leaving the country – are driving people away from protests, according to Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center pollster.

A recent Levada Center survey shows that the proportion of Russians who consider mass political protests possible has declined from 23 percent to 15 percent over the past year (the dynamics for economic protests are similar). But this is not the only issue. For a time, "people were ready to protest, but protest leaders began to show some moderation in their actions," says Grazhdankin, referring to the tendency of the opposition to give up on a rally altogether if the authorities do not grant permission to hold it in the city center.

Things were further aggravated by the situation in Ukraine; people are afraid of repeating the fate of their neighbors, the sociologists explained. In addition, public confidence in the authorities today is not based on material well-being, but on the idea that they oppose the external threat from the West.

"Against the background of this threat, the authorities' actions appear to be appropriate, while emerging problems are seen as inspired by the West," Grazhdankin explained. In such a situation, he said, hopes for the growth of the opposition movement are almost inexistent.

"In 2012, the protest was ideological; people were interested in rights, democracy and fair elections,” said Dmitry Oreshkin. “We will not see this kind of protest anymore. Everything will most likely begin in the regions with strikes like the one that was staged by the builders of the Vostochny space launch center when they were not paid.”


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