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Analysis: Why The Official Response To The Moscow Protests May Be A Turning Point

Police detain a young protester during an unsanctioned rally in Moscow on July 27.
Police detain a young protester during an unsanctioned rally in Moscow on July 27.

The images from Moscow's streets were familiar enough.

Riot police, clad in helmets, black-and-blue camouflage, and jackboots, bludgeoning cowering protesters, frog-marching others into armored police vans. Demonstrators -- many in shorts, T-shirts, sneakers, some in baseball caps, many recording on smartphones -- wrestling with crowd barriers, chanting taunts and aspirational slogans.

But something was different on July 27, and the questions now are what exactly, why now, and what comes next?

Nearly 1,400 people were detained during the protest in the Russian capital, which at times turned the streets near Moscow City Hall into a massive mosh pit.

The impetus for the demonstration was a push by liberal political activists to run for Moscow city council seats in a September 8 election. Some of the chants heard suggested goals or desires far broader than that, such as: "Russia without Putin!" and "Russia will be free!"

For weeks, there was mounting evidence that election authorities were going out of their way to find pretexts -- sometimes widely dismissed as absurd -- to keep opposition, liberal, or simply independent candidates off the ballot.

Opposition activists -- Aleksei Navalny, Leonid Volkov, Lyubov Sobol, and Ilya Yashin, to name a few of the better-known ones -- tried to channel that outrage into public dissent with the unauthorized gathering outside City Hall. Moscow authorities, the mayor first and foremost, made blatantly clear ahead of time: Don't Do It.

And the heads rolled, or were cracked in some cases.

By some accounts, it was the worst political violence since a wave of protests in 2011-12. That was when anger over evidence of widespread fraud in parliamentary elections and dismay at Vladimir Putin's plan to return to the presidency after a stint as prime minister sent tens of thousands of people onto the streets several times.

Several of those protests were held in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square, including one at which violence broke out -- with the police and protesters blaming each other. Dozens of people were prosecuted on what Kremlin critics contended were fabricated charges in what came to be known as the Bolotnaya Case.

Surprising Severity

For veteran Kremlin watchers, the belligerent reaction that law enforcement demonstrated over the weekend was not a surprise.

The severity was. As was the number of people who turned out despite the signals ahead of time that there might be a harsh reaction from police.

Police Beat, Detain Protesters And Opposition Figures At Moscow Rally
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For political analyst Liliya Shevtsova, an expert on Putin and his allies, the response more than anything is a signal of where the limits are for the Kremlin. And those limits are rooted in the decisions of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s and the perception that his policies led to the demise of the country.

"The Kremlin remembers the Gorbachev era perfectly: Open the window a bit, and they will open the entire door...and thus it begins," she wrote in a commentary published on the website of Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy.

"No, the government cannot allow this. The steamroller will continue to move, even against the will of something in the government itself. When such guns roll out of the garage, they acquire their own logic of movement," she wrote.

Turnout estimates from the weekend's protests range from 3,500 to 20,000, depending on whether officials or opposition groups are doing the counting. A week earlier, a similar protest in the capital drew more than 22,000 people, according to organizers -- one of the biggest crowds since 2011-12.

Vladimir Gelman, a political scientist who teaches at the European University of St. Petersburg, said that the turnout was larger than authorities expected, and the harsh response was a reflection of them being caught off-guard.

As Shevtsova hints at, the issue at hand isn't really who gets on the ballots for the Moscow City Duma elections, or whether the police have the right to bash people's heads, or even if Russians have the right to peacefully assemble, something that's guaranteed by the constitution.

It's an issue of President Vladimir Putin's nearly 20 years as the country's preeminent political figure and what comes after his term finishes in 2024.

Looming Uncertainty

Five years out, there's looming uncertainty about whether, and how, Putin could seek to retain his authority, and who would replace him if he doesn't.

Thanks to the choreographed election process, and Kremlin control over the widest-reaching media outlets, Putin was overwhelmingly elected in March 2018.

But his popularity has been hurt by factors such as stagnating wages, a retirement-age increase, disgust with the United Russia party, and unhappiness with the political process, particularly at the local level.

That makes coming up with a succession plan, or a post-Putin plan, more complicated. Images of riot police clubbing protesters who are exercising a constitutionally guaranteed right makes it even more complex.

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What makes matters worse is that Navalny and other opposition groups are succeeding to a degree in getting their message out, despite the Kremlin headlock on state TV.

Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst who heads a consultancy called R.Politik, said the police response over the weekend seemed to suggest that the Kremlin is at a loss in dealing with opposition groups.

Like Shevtsova, Stanovaya thinks it portends a harder line toward future political demonstrations.

"The Kremlin, it seems, does not know what to do with an anti-regime opposition capable of mobilizing street" demonstrations, she wrote in a commentary published by the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The current suppression…and a new round of criminal prosecution of activists is a clear bet on a harsher scenario, perhaps an attempt to repeat the experience of" the Bolotnaya Case.

'No East Way Out'

The government, she wrote, is confused, and "such confusion within the government is the result of the fact that there is no easy way out of the current crisis."

Russia has entered a period of serious uncertainty, she said.

Two days on, the fallout of the protests, and the crackdown, is still falling. Opposition groups are trying to galvanize support for another street protest in a week. Authorities, meanwhile, are going through the process of court hearings for some of those detained, mostly on misdemeanor charges and administrative violations.

But there's been no larger indication, from the mayor's office to the Kremlin, about whether the protests were handled properly, and what will happen if activists follow through with their threats to repeat next weekend.

Navalny will be sidelined after being jailed preemptively by law enforcement and ordered jailed for 30 days. Yashin, who was prevented from standing as a candidate for the city Duma, was ordered jailed for 10 days, keeping him out of commission as well, and other figures have also been jailed until after the weekend.

Gelman, who also teaches at the Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies in Helsinki, predicted that opposition groups were unlikely to be spooked by either the detentions before or after the event, or the violence during the protest itself.

The critical moment, he told RFE/RL, will come if the opposition can muster 50,000 people in the streets. A demonstration of that size would be impossible for riot police or the elite National Guard to disperse without major bloodshed, so the authorities will do everything to prevent the opposition from building to that critical mass.

"The authorities will use any tactics to scare the public, including individual measures against protest organizers, or any other methods to prevent this scenario from happening," he said.

Isolating leading figures like Navalny, he said, did not have the effect of frightening supporters or other sympathizers, speculating that officials might end up turning to other methods, like poisonings.

Navalny himself suffered a severe, unexplained allergic reaction while in detention, and his supporters have already suggested he may have been poisoned.

"I see a new wave of repression, but it won't end up limiting the opposition," Gelman said. "In fact, I predict it will only galvanize them further."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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