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After Moscow Protest Crackdown, Kremlin Critics Question Navalny's Tactics

Riot police detain a man during an anticorruption protest on Tverskaya Street in Moscow. Protest organizer Aleksei Navalny has faced criticism for moving the demonstration to the Russian capital's central thoroughfare at short notice.
Riot police detain a man during an anticorruption protest on Tverskaya Street in Moscow. Protest organizer Aleksei Navalny has faced criticism for moving the demonstration to the Russian capital's central thoroughfare at short notice.

Russia’s liberal opposition has long been plagued by infighting. And fresh fissures have emerged over chief Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny's decision to move an anticorruption protest in Moscow to the city center, where hundreds were detained by police on June 12.

Kremlin critics have accused the opposition leader of deflating the momentum of antigovernment forces by altering the site of this week's protest less than 24 hours before the event.

Authorities made good on their warning that they would intervene in any "unsanctioned" protest on the central Moscow thoroughfare where Navalny had urged his supporters to gather rather than at a site just outside the center that City Hall had authorized.

Scuffles and Detentions At Russian Protests
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Police detained more than 800 people, including scores of young people, drawing censure from Washington and Brussels.

Navalny was detained at his apartment building ahead of the protest and later sentenced to 30 days in jail after being found guilty of violating laws on public gatherings and resisting police.

Russian Activist Navalny Arrested Before Moscow Protest
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The last-minute change of plan left a weakened turnout at the original site, where a few thousand people ultimately gathered for the rally, which state TV covered as a subdued, lightly attended, and disorganized affair.

“I will say just a few words: Navalny has weakened the protest movement,” veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, a harsh critic of President Vladimir Putin, told the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper at the authorized rally on June 12.

Andrei Zubov, a prominent historian once fired as a professor at an elite Moscow university for his criticism of Russian expansionism in Ukraine, echoed that sentiment on June 13, saying both the originally planned rally and the protest on Moscow’s central Tverskaya Street "failed."

Compared to substantial protests in other Russian cities, "Muscovites turned out to be disconnected, disoriented, and demoralized," Zubov wrote on Facebook. "And city authorities are not responsible for this, alas, but rather the organizers of the rally."

Jail Time 'At Best'

Navalny is seeking to run in the 2018 presidential election, which is expected to hand Russian President Vladimir Putin a fourth term. The June 12 protests in more than 100 cities were aimed at further galvanizing Navalny's base after nationwide anticorruption rallies in March that rattled Russia's ruling elite.

Both Navalny and his key associates said they were pleased with ample turnouts in major cities across the country on June 12 that included many young people who have grown up knowing no other government than Putin's.

"I rate today’s actions very well," Navalny told reporters just before midnight on June 12 in a Moscow courtroom, shortly before he was handed his jail sentence. "We had an excellent geographic reach. A lot of people came out...There were rallies in cities where they’d never happened before."

Navalny Pleased With Russian Protests, Despite Arrest
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But the focus of the protests was undoubtedly Moscow, where Navalny said on the eve of the event that organizers were unable to secure sound and stage equipment for the original rally at Prospekt Sakharov due to alleged pressure on contractors by city authorities.

Such official pressure on private firms doing business with opposition groups is not unusual in Russia, and Navalny cited organizers' inability to rent the equipment as the reason for changing the rally site.

He insisted the law was on the side of the protesters, noting that Russia’s constitution guarantees citizens' rights to gather peacefully. Several Kremlin opponents, however, accused Navalny of goading his followers into a guaranteed confrontation with police.

"Navalny drummed up some more PR for himself, and those who hit the streets for him will earn some jail time at best," Roman Roslovtsev, an activist who has been repeatedly jailed for one-man protests in which he wears a Putin mask, wrote on Facebook.

Other prominent anti-Kremlin activists, meanwhile, said they backed Navalny's decision. Ilya Yashin, a veteran opposition politician detained during the protest, said, "You can’t just allow authorities to treat protesters like sheep and herd them into a pen."

"You can’t play these games with authorities forever," Yashin told RFE/RL in an interview following his detention. "At some point, you have to stand firm and show that we have rights, that we know our rights and are ready to defend them."

Mystery Stage

In the end, a stage and a sound system were set up for the rally at the original rally site, where attendees largely vented their anger over a Kremlin-backed plan by city authorities to raze Soviet-era housing.

Navalny's top deputy, Leonid Volkov, said on the opposition leader's YouTube channel on June 13 that he and his associates have no idea where the equipment came from or who procured it. He suggested authorities secretly brought it in to discredit Navalny’s justification for moving the protest.

Moscow authorities and the Kremlin accused Navalny of a "provocation" in moving the rally site, while state-controlled media and Kremlin loyalists suggested the presence of the stage and sound system proved that Navalny and his fellow organizers had lied.

Sergei Sharov-Delaunay, a rights activist and head of the nongovernmental advocacy group Russia Behind Bars, told Current Time TV that Navalny, like any politician, makes mistakes but that "his overall approach is correct."

"His goal is to become the exclusive opposition leader and the only possible opposition presidential candidate in the next political cycle," Sharov-Delaunay told the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "And he is working toward this goal consistently and rather successfully."

The unsanctioned protests, Sharov-Delaunay added, show Navalny as "a decisive leader who is not prepared to cave to authorities."

Andrei Loshak, a prominent opposition-minded journalist, said that, while he did not completely understand Navalny's decision to move the rally, he was deeply impressed by young protesters who flooded to Tverskaya Street -- a demographic Navalny has courted with his irreverence and new-media savvy.

Loshak wrote on Facebook that he heard one young woman tell her boyfriend after witnessing riot police wrench protesters from the site: "Thanks for dragging me here. I learned a lot today."

"There will be more and more like her -- and that’s a very bad sign for authorities, and a very good sign for the rest," Loshak wrote.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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

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