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Russian politics are as cold as ever

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Juri Rescheto
February 27, 2017

Thousands have taken to the streets. Kremlin critic Ildar Dadin released from prison. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny running for president. Don't mistake these developments for a political thaw, writes Juri Rescheto.

Russland Wladimir Putin Tag des Verteidigers des Vaterlandes
Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Kolesnikova

Pushkin Square, Moscow: On Sunday there were loud demands for a "Russia without Putin" that went on for hours in the middle of the city. It was a memorial march for Boris Nemtsov, the former deputy prime minister who was murdered two years ago, with thousands shouting, "hands off Crimea." The police looked on, doing nothing to interfere.

Similar scenes of protest took place in St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod in Volga and Novosibirsk in Siberia. No one was arrested. No one was taken away.

At the same time in Siberia, Ildar Dadin was released from prison. He was 15 months into a two-and-a-half year prison sentence for participating in multiple unsanctioned protests - the first political prisoner for that crime. Russia's supreme court overturned the conviction. Dadin may be morally and materially compensated, and he will continue fighting for prisoners' rights and against prison torture.

Meanwhile in the Urals, the opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, said he remains determined to stay on the presidential ballot for the 2018 election - his third campaign - despite a February 8 conviction for embezzlement. Surrounded by young people, Navalny called the Kremlin a "small group of mafia associates, living like sheiks and kings."

Russia remains as frosty as ever

Such a politically active weekend: coincidence, or is Russia on the cusp of a new political awakening?

Doubtful. The memorial demonstration for Nemtsov was barred from passing the site of his assassination - a bridge leading to Red Square and the Kremlin. Instead, uniformed men come at night to take down the improvised memorial on the bridge, where during the day others lay flowers.

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DW's Russia correspondent, Juri Rescheto

Dadin is free, but only on a technicality. The ruling was procedural, not legal. The law that sent him to prison remains in place, threatening others in Russia with harsh sentences for speaking out against Putin's system.

As for Navalny, it remains far from certain how much room to maneuver he will enjoy. The Kremlin has yet to take a clear position against him, nor has he challenged his corruption conviction. It would not take much to put him behind bars and end his short-lived presidential run.

Keeping up appearances

For the authoritarians, it is far more effective to let a few thousand people march through the center of Moscow protesting one of the most brazen political assassinations in modern times - more effective than chasing them down and looking like a brutal police state.

It is far more effective to release a political prisoner who has already served a year and a half and whose prison torture has received international attention - more effective than continuing to torture him, thus keeping the spotlight on the inhumane conditions of Russia's prisons.

It is more effective to appear democratic and tolerate the only actual opposition candidate in the presidential race - more effective than throwing him in jail. At least, for now.


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Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief