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Halt To Russia's Opposition Protests Prompts Criticism From 'Seething' Activists

People attend a protest after Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was sentenced to jail in Moscow on February 2.
People attend a protest after Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was sentenced to jail in Moscow on February 2.

After two weeks of police beatings, thousands of arrests, and a wave of criminal prosecutions whose reach is only just becoming apparent, allies of imprisoned Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny have called an end to the anti-government protests they incited over the course of three consecutive weeks.

“If we continue to go out each week, we’ll continue to get thousands arrested and hundreds beaten,” Leonid Volkov, a top Navalny aide, told supporters in a YouTube video announcing the decision. “That’s not what we want, and that’s not what Aleksei asks of us.”

The protests ended the day Navalny was sentenced to over 2 1/2 years in prison on February 2, and Volkov said his allies would continue to fight for his release -- prioritizing “foreign policy methods,” including pressuring Western leaders to impose sanctions, while not shirking from street rallies down the line.

“We won’t run out of reasons, and we won’t run out of demands,” he said.

Anger Over Decision

But the statement, which came as hundreds of protesters languish in squalid jails awaiting trial, immediately prompted indignation. Navalny supporters took to social media to voice their anger over what some perceived as capitulation.

“These guys had no revolutionary ambitions after all,” Artur Moskvin, a self-professed activist of over 30 years, wrote on Facebook. “I was always ready to be a simple foot soldier. But not the type of foot soldier whom brilliant generals send to clear a minefield at the price of our corpses.”

Navalny, charged with defaming a World War II veteran, attends a court hearing in Moscow on February 5.
Navalny, charged with defaming a World War II veteran, attends a court hearing in Moscow on February 5.

“I understand the decision of Navalny’s team,” tweeted Russian journalist Oleg Kozyrev. But, he added, “people are seething over the arrests, the beatings, and the detention camps. They’re emotional, and they got an answer based on logic -- not one based on emotion."

Rallies for Navalny’s release swept Russia on January 23 and 31, with smaller demonstrations erupting in Moscow and St Petersburg the night of Navalny’s sentencing. The authorities cracked down, often using violence to disperse the largely peaceful crowds and arresting over 11,000 people.

Unnamed sources close to the Kremlin told Reuters on February 4 that authorities believe they can easily ride out further nationwide rallies and are ready to use yet more force against demonstrators if necessary.

“This is just a warm-up,” one source told the news agency.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Ruslan Shaveddinov, a project manager for the Anti-Corruption Foundation and one of its few employees not behind bars or under house arrest, said that Navalny’s team acknowledged the disappointment among some supporters but argued that many had misconstrued Volkov’s words.

“People should watch the video instead of paying attention to the headlines,” he said. “We’re not stopping our work for a second. We’ll be working every day to get Navalny out.”

Push For Sanctions

Shaveddinov confirmed that Navalny’s team would urge Western leaders to impose further sanctions on Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin and those seen as complicit in state corruption or human rights violations.

The Anti-Corruption Foundation e-mailed a letter to several top U.S. officials in January listing 35 individuals whom they’d like to see sanctioned, including billionaire businessmen Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov, and Oleg Deripaska.

In the meantime, Russian lawmakers are preparing to debate legislation that would make it a crime to call for sanctions against Russian citizens.

Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov told RFE/RL the decision to put protests on hold is strategically sound but risks angering those who braved bitter cold and police batons to make their voices heard.

“If they upped the tempo now, people would quickly burn out emotionally,” he said. “But public discontent is not going anywhere, and it will only grow, so we can expect more unrest in the summer.”

Shaveddinov said Navalny, who was back in court on February 5 charged with defaming a World War II veteran who promoted a dubious national plebiscite on extending Putin’s rule last July, had endorsed Volkov’s message in comments passed on by his lawyer. The work of his team would continue in his absence.

“The first task is to help people behind bars. We need to get them all out,” Shaveddinov said. “We’ll also continue our anti-corruption investigations, and we’ll continue what Aleksei Navalny asked us to do: preparing for the crucially important fall elections.”

The parliamentary vote expected in September has long been a target for the embattled opposition, which hopes to seize on Putin’s falling approval rating and widespread grumbling over falling real wages to break the political stranglehold of the ruling United Russia party. Ahead of that election, Shavedinnov insists, more demonstrations are inevitable.

“There’s no magic button that can start and stop protests,” he said. “People come out not because they’re called on by Volkov or Navalny. They come out because they see injustice, they see what’s happening in our country. Reasons to protest won’t go away -- the authorities’ actions made sure of that.”

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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