In the week since a wave of protests in support of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny swept Russia on April 21, at least 115 people in 23 cities have been detained by police. At least seven journalists who were covering the protests have also been summoned for questioning.
Immediately after the protests, activists and observers noted the relatively mild reaction of the authorities to the unsanctioned demonstrations, particularly in contrast to similar protests in January and February at which thousands of people were detained, often brutally.
But in recent days, Russian police have unveiled a new strategy, using surveillance-camera footage and other techniques to identify demonstrators and track them down, days after the event.
"I think they are trying a new tactic now," opposition politician and political analyst Leonid Gozman told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. Earlier, he said, the police would detain 2 or 3 percent of the protesters at a rally and the rest would go home feeling relieved.
"Now we have a different situation," he continued. "They are signaling to everyone: 'Go ahead and march, guys, but a year from now you can expect we'll come, expect a knock at your door. And we'll come or not as we wish....' Now they have placed everyone in that position."
Making a similar point, Ekho Moskvy editor in chief Aleksei Venediktov posted a warning to his own journalists on Twitter. "To all seven Ekho correspondents who were working the streets on April 21, get ready," he wrote.
At the same time, the authorities are proceeding swiftly to proclaim three national organizations tied to Navalny as "extremist," which would place their employees and donors at risk of arrest and long prison terms. The Moscow City Court on April 26 approved the city prosecutor's injunction suspending most activities by the organizations, including Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation and his network of regional offices.
The court is expected to rule on the "extremist" designation at a closed hearing in Moscow on April 29.
"Most likely on April 29, they will make that decision. And not in our favor," said Ksenia Fadeyeva, the former director of Navalny's office in the Siberian city of Tomsk, who was elected to the city council in September 2020. "We have little hope of a miracle. So we are getting ready for the work of our offices to be shut down completely. The offices will be closed. There will be no meetings of volunteers or staff -- who, by the way, are not able to meet anyway. All of them except for me are under arrest."
Potentially, everyone who has ever donated to any of Navalny's organizations could be in jeopardy, lawyer Dmitry Dmitriyev said, and could face up to eight years in prison.
"In addition, all of those people will most likely find themselves on the Rosfinmonitoring list of terrorists and extremists," he said, referring to the state financial-transactions-monitoring agency. "That would mean their bank accounts would be blocked and they would only be able to spend 10,000 rubles ($134) per family member per month."
The assault against Navalny's organizations and supporters comes as Russia prepares for elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, that must be held by September 19. The ruling United Russia party is polling at record-low popularity following its support of a reviled increase in retirement ages and the adoption of a raft of constitutional amendments, including one that would allow longtime authoritarian President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036.
On April 27, the BBC reported that data about Navalny supporters that was hacked from a website set up to create momentum for protests was being used to pressure employers. At least three companies told the BBC they had received anonymous e-mails informing them that some of their employees were among Navalny's supporters and that employing them could be considered "support for an extremist organization."
Aleksei Golovenko, a gastroenterologist, was interviewed by the BBC during the April 21 demonstration in Moscow, although he says he was only on the scene by chance. On April 25, he was detained by police while taking a walk with his wife and children.
During his hearing, prosecutors presented a clip from a surveillance camera. It was one of several reported cases in recent days of officials using Moscow's newly created "Smart City" surveillance system to pressure demonstrators.
The 15-second clip of Golovenko walking down the street failed to convince the judge, who unexpectedly dismissed the charges.
"I think this might have happened because of the support that suddenly appeared and, to be honest, which I didn't expect," Golovenko told RFE/RL, referring to the fact that many of his medical colleagues spoke up on social media and offered other assistance. "I am definitely not the most famous gastroenterologist in Russian and certainly not the best. But most likely it has some effect because most social-media platforms were writing about it. I was stunned by the support from some of my eminent colleagues."
Golovenko said the support he received and the fact that others were also being held for allegedly participating in the protest made his ordeal bearable.
"I don't regret one kopeck of the money I've donated to OVD-Info," he said, referring to the independent monitoring group that publicizes police activity around the country. "I regularly send them money and urge all activists to support them. Their slogan is: 'No one should be left alone against the system.' And it is true. The frightening thing isn't that they might beat you...but that you are alone for two days and you don't know what is happening in your life or what they are doing to your family.
"Repression," he added, "is very effective."
Exactly how effective remains to be seen, said political commentator and former Kremlin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov.
"The demand for an opposition is not going to go anywhere," he told RFE/RL. "It exists and will grow stronger. After all, the fundamental reasons for it have not been addressed. Standards of living have not improved, Putin hasn't gotten any younger, and the last 20 years are still with us. The demand for some renewal is only going to get stronger.
"But for some time, the protest movement will be without a leader, more chaotic, and less rational," he added. "It won't be able to generate political slogans as effectively, so it will flare up in completely unpredictable places. The authorities have significantly increased the likelihood of a strong protest vote in the Duma elections."
Opposition politician Gozman said the state's heavy-handed tactics were having two effects.
"First, it is reducing the number of people who will come out to protest,” he told Current Time. “Second, it is radicalizing those who will come out anyway. That is, they are provoking violent actions, which is something our country has seen in the past.”