Will Alexei Navalny be the Novichok victim that broke Vladimir Putin’s back?
Navalny, the prominent Russian opposition leader who was poisoned with the powerful Soviet-era nerve agent on a flight from Siberia to Moscow in August, was arrested upon returning to Russia from Germany on Jan. 17.
Now, according to The Washington Post, over 3,300 people were detained Saturday by Russian authorities amid protests sweeping the country.
Among the detained was Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya. According to Deutsche Welle, Navalnaya has become more politically active since her husband’s poisoning and many have pegged her as a potential opposition leader if her husband were kept in prison.
Navalny returned to Moscow after spending several months in Germany post-poisoning. He was charged with violating the conditions of a suspended sentence in a fraud case. That case was condemned as a political prosecution by, among others, the European Court of Human Rights. This is in addition to new allegations (massive air quotes around that “allegations” bit) that he embezzled funds donated to the opposition.
The Putin regime has, for the most part, been able to contain its dissidents and opposition leaders effectively, either scattering them abroad, jailing them and/or killing them. This time, however, it hasn’t necessarily seemed to have worked, at least not so far.
Navalny, a populist with a strong social media following, galvanized support around the country after his team published a 113-minute video Tuesday highlighting Putin’s corruption and alleging the Russian leader has built a $1 billion compound on the Black Sea, according to The New York Times.
Georgy Alburov — the co-author of the “Putin’s Palace: The World’s Largest Bribe” video — was one of those detained on Saturday, as were the heads of many of Navalny’s regional offices, according to The Associated Press.
In more than 100 cities across the country, protesters took to the streets Saturday, chanting anti-Putin slogans and clashing with authorities. In Moscow, footage uploaded to social media showed demonstrators pelting authorities with snowballs and surrounding a car belonging to the intelligence services, according to The New York Times.
❗ На Цветном бульваре протестующие* разгромили автомобиль спецслужб
* — Акция протеста не согласована с властью. pic.twitter.com/rcVMYhT6Hx
— Эхо Москвы (@EchoMskRu) January 23, 2021
The Times’ report, by Anton Troianovski and Andrew Higgins, noted that the protests “did not immediately pose a dire threat to President Vladimir V. Putin’s grip on power.”
“But their broad scope, and the remarkable defiance displayed by many of the protesters, signaled widespread fatigue with the stagnant, corruption-plagued political order that Mr. Putin has presided over for two decades,” the article stated.
It described demonstrations that “began to unfold in the eastern regions of Russia, a country of 11 time zones, and they moved like a wave across the nation despite a heavy police presence and a drumbeat of menacing warnings on state media to stay away.”
“Putin is a thief,” protesters in Moscow chanted, according to The Washington Post. “This is my home, I’m not afraid!”
While cars honked in support, police loudspeakers warned the demonstrators: “Respected citizens, the current event is illegal. We are doing everything to ensure your safety.”
“Police are the shame of Russia,” protesters responded, The Post reported.
United States officialdom, meanwhile, castigated the Putin regime for the crackdown on the protests.
“Russian authorities arresting peaceful protesters, journalists — appears to be concerted campaign to suppress free speech, peaceful assembly,” Rebecca Ross, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow’s spokeswoman, wrote in a Twitter post. “This continues years of Russia tightening restrictions, repressive actions against civil society, independent media, political opposition.”
Russian authorities arresting peaceful protesters, journalists – appears to be concerted campaign to suppress free speech, peaceful assembly. This continues years of Russia tightening restrictions, repressive actions against civil society, independent media, political opposition.
— Rebecca Ross (@USEmbRuPress) January 23, 2021
In a statement, meanwhile, State Department spokesman Ned Price said America “will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners in defense of human rights – whether in Russia or wherever they come under threat.”
“US will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners in defense of human rights – whether in Russia or wherever they come under threat.” pic.twitter.com/ofBbP4dMT3
— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) January 23, 2021
Protesters tended to be young, with the demonstrations organized partially on TikTok. Pictures and video also circulated throughout the day on social media.
— Jake Rudnitsky (@Rudnit) January 23, 2021
Putin says @navalny is a nobody who isn’t popular. Doesn’t look like that in Vladivostok where people are out in the extreme cold in large numbers to protest a Alexei’s arrest and persecution https://t.co/NewpSqrw0H
— Bill Browder (@Billbrowder) January 23, 2021
Protests are taking place across Russia today, calling for Navalny’s release.
This is Vladivostok, in the country’s Far East pic.twitter.com/luO4oudeH9
— Matthew Luxmoore (@mjluxmoore) January 23, 2021
Can this level of pressure continue? That remains to be seen. According to The Times, protesters carried signs with slogans like “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be silent” and “One for all and all for one.”
One of Navalny’s top aides, meanwhile, warned the Russian leader about what the future would hold: “If Putin thinks the most frightening things are behind him, he is very sorely and naïvely mistaken,” Leonid Volkov said, according to The Times.
State media, meanwhile, called the protests a “wave of aggression” and sent an ominous message to those who took part in Saturday’s action.
“Attacking a police officer is a criminal offense,” state television said. “Hundreds of videos were shot. All the faces are on them.”
Putin carries a very large stick and has, thus far, been unwavering in the face of internal and external pressure on all manner of human rights issues.
However, the latest protests constitute a reckoning. How the Russian leader faces it will determine how final that reckoning is.
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