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Protesters defiant ahead of Moscow rally

Emily Sherwin
August 3, 2019

A recent police crackdown on protesters pushing for fair local council elections in the Russian capital has not deterred demonstrators. Thousands are expected to rally again over the weekend.

Police holding protester on July 27
Image: AFP/K. Kudryavtsev

"A walk along the boulevards" in Moscow — that's how organizers have billed the upcoming rally on Facebook. Saturday's planned protest has not been authorized. It is to be the latest in a string of demonstrations fighting for the registration of independent candidates for elections to the Moscow parliament.

Last weekend's rally saw nearly 1,400 people arrested, with images of police violence that sent shock waves around the world and garnered condemnation from both German and French government officials. The independent monitor OVD-Info told DW that the number of those arrested was a "record."

The authorities are now referring to the protests as mass "unrest" and have so far convicted four protesters on criminal charges. One demonstrator who tried to pull off a riot police officer's helmet has been sentenced to two months in prison for taking part in mass unrest and for "violence against a government representative." Several of the protesters are insisting they are being wrongly accused.

Mikhail Nikitin, a biologist working at Moscow State University, has become one of the symbols of the protests after the photo of his arrest was published by several prominent media outlets. He told DW he may have to pay a fine of up to 20,000 rubles (just under €300; $333) for disturbing public order. His police report said he was chanting slogans and refusing to comply with police orders.

Police manhandling protester Mikhail Nikitin
The photo of Nikitin's arrest caused widespread outrageImage: AFP/K. Kudryavtsev

"When they arrested me, I was mainly busy trying not to get hurt and not to fall, because they were trying to knock me down onto the pavement. I was also trying to prevent them from twisting my arm. They were trying to do that quite a lot when they were bringing me to the police van," he said.

Another protester, Evgeny Kovalenko, told DW that he is being accused of blocking traffic at a time when he was actually already in a police van on his way to the station. He insisted that when he was arrested, he was asking officers in a police cordon how to leave the protest. "It seemed clear to me that the police are not with the people," he said.

Read more: Opinion: The Kremlin fears its own people

'Reasonable' behavior

A survey carried out this week among Muscovites by the independent Petersburg Politics foundation showed that while around 33% blame the authorities or the police officers for the high number of arrests, more than 20% of people blame the protesters themselves and more than 12% the organizers. 

It seems at any rate unlikely that Moscow's authorities will loosen their grip in the upcoming rally. In an interview with a local state TV station on Tuesday, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin called the behavior of police at the previous protest "reasonable" and said protesters had "pushed the police into using force."

This week, many of the candidates leading the call for protests have been arrested, including Ilya Yashin, Dmitry Gudkov and Ivan Zhdanov. Many of them have received prison terms that mean they will be off the streets for the rally on Saturday. The organizer of the upcoming protest, Libertarian Party politician Mikhail Svetov, was arrested coming out of the Moscow mayor's office after trying and failing to agree on a location for the rally.

Read more: Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny says he was poisoned in custody 

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin casting his ballot at council elections
Sobyanin called police behavior at the protests 'reasonable'Image: Reuters/S. Karpukhin

An unpredictable mix

According to political scientist Ilya Graschenkov, the behavior of the government is making things worse. "The authorities are trying to preserve stability and are fretting," he told Russian media outlet Novye Izvestia.

"If they keep acting according to the current scenario, the protest will increase and grow," he said, explaining that the "government is giving the opposition a reason to unite." The Russian opposition has traditionally been plagued by infighting and divisions.

When it comes to expectations of the upcoming rally, Grigory Durnovo, the coordinator of OVD-Info's monitoring group, told DW that his organization has stopped trying to anticipate the behavior of police ahead of rallies.

"It is always extremely hard to predict these things," he explained. "Things often don't happen according to our expectations. When we expect a crackdown it doesn't happen; when we expect the police to act calmly, they crack down on protesters."

Read more: DW journalist briefly arrested at Moscow protest

Worth the risk?

Regardless of how the authorities react to the protest on the weekend, demonstrators Mikhail Nikitin and Evgeny Kovalenko are convinced protesters should keep fighting. Nikitin, who is from Moscow, explained that he is still considering whether he will go to the rally and whether he can risk being arrested again. The academic said his sense of injustice is strong, however.

"For me, this is about Moscow and about honest elections — and about people in government structures admitting to having made mistakes," he said.

Protesters and independent candidates have accused Moscow city authorities of consciously making errors when verifying the signatures of opposition candidates. Independent candidates must collect a certain number of valid signatures in their district in order to be allowed to run in the city's parliament elections, which are scheduled for September 8. 

"It doesn't seem like demonstrators are likely to calm down so easily," said Nikitin. "And even if there is a crackdown at all of the upcoming protests, then there will be a protest vote in September. People will vote for anyone but the candidates connected to United Russia."

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