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In Urging A 'Final Battle' With The Kremlin, Navalny's Team Bets Against Apathy

Protesters rally in support of Aleksei Navalny in St. Petersburg on January 31. Organizers will hope for even bigger crowds.
Protesters rally in support of Aleksei Navalny in St. Petersburg on January 31. Organizers will hope for even bigger crowds.

MOSCOW -- Allies of ailing, imprisoned Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny have not held back in delineating the stakes of their latest standoff with the Russian state. A wave of protests planned for April 21, they say, represents the "final battle between good and neutrality."

Members of Navalny's embattled opposition movement, many of whom have fled Russia under the threat of incarceration, had planned not to announce new anti-government rallies until 500,000 people had registered online to take part. Strength in numbers, they said in viral clips posted online, was the only sure way to protect participants from police beatings and arrest.

But on April 18, as the online tally passed 430,000 and Navalny's doctors warned he may have only days to live as he continues his hunger strike in a prison outside Moscow, his team shifted gear and named April 21 as the date for nationwide demonstrations they hope can force concessions from President Vladimir Putin's government.

"Each of us, whether we like it or not, faces a choice," Navalny's team said in a video announcing the protests. "If we are silent now, Russia will be plunged into total darkness. Peaceful political activism in Russia will become impossible."

A weeks-long crackdown since the previous protest wave in January, after Navalny was detained upon return to Russia following treatment for a poisoning attack he blames on Putin, has left many of Navalny's remaining allies in Russia behind bars or under house arrest.

Now, authorities have moved to label his Anti-Corruption Foundation and his network of offices across the country "extremist," a designation that, if upheld in court, will leave its staff and supporters open to criminal prosecution.

But turnout on April 21 may hinge largely upon whether the dangers faced by protesters, especially since lawmakers passed a flurry of punitive legislation aimed at radically curtailing the space for dissent, will outweigh any collective sense that the decisive moment to act in defense of political freedoms and in favor of change has come.

"The authorities definitely succeeded in spooking a proportion of people," former Kremlin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov, now a political analyst, told RFE/RL. "But Putin remains in the Kremlin, Navalny remains in jail, the regime remains authoritarian, and living standards are falling. And the reasons that previously made people take to the streets have remained the same."

Riot police officers confront pro-Navalny protesters in St Petersburg on January 31.
Riot police officers confront pro-Navalny protesters in St Petersburg on January 31.

Gallyamov said a "protest core" of some 10,000 people is almost certain to come out in Moscow for the protest on the evening of April 21, hours after Putin delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address -- a speech that comes amid deep international concern over Navalny's condition as well as other issues, including a Russian military buildup in occupied Crimea and along the border with eastern Ukraine.

But a big question, Gallyamov contends, will be how much of the much larger "protest periphery" -- the mass of occasional political activists who regularly weigh up the pros and cons of demonstrating and often decide last-minute -- will opt to join the core at a time when the risks of doing so have significantly grown.

On April 20, Navalny was moved from his prison 100 kilometers east of Moscow to a medical unit on the grounds of another correctional facility nearby, almost three weeks into a hunger strike that he announced to protest a lack of treatment for acute back and leg ailments and a lack of access to his own doctors.

Aleksei Liptser, a members of Navalny's legal team who visited the opposition leader shortly after his transfer on April 20, said the inmate looked emaciated. "He's losing weight, and it's clear he's weak and struggling," Liptser told RFE/RL in a phone interview. "He's speaking much slower than he used to."

As Navalny's team works to convince Putin supporters and Russians who remain skeptical or simply indifferent to the fate of the opposition, some people have embraced extreme measures to prove how much they care.

More than 100 have signed up on Facebook to a mass hunger strike in solidarity with Navalny, and among those who are refusing food in a show of support are five parents whose children died in the 2004 school siege in Beslan, the legacy of which still resonates in Russia's North Ossetia region.

"They've taken a man hostage and are destroying him. Our children were also taken hostage in 2004, and no one saved them," one of them, Ella Kesayeva, told the Novaya gazeta newspaper.

Navalny's team will also hope that public discontent has reached a level critical enough to leave thousands of Russians no choice but to protest. In video after video since Navalny's sentencing to 2 1/2 years in prison on February 2, they have cited statistics showing declining real wages, an erosion of the influence of state-controlled television, the falling popularity of ruling party United Russia, and declining public trust in state institutions and in Putin himself.

Whether that message will have enough mobilization potential, analysts say, will depend on its force relative to the force of the state's ongoing crackdown. The authorities have moved swiftly to thwart turnout at the mid-week rallies, arresting people who have promoted the protests and demanding that YouTube, the video-sharing platform, delete videos that mention them.

On April 16, the Moscow prosecutor's office asked the Moscow City Court to uphold its demand that three organizations founded by Navalny -- including the Anti-Corruption Foundation and Navalny's network of regional political offices -- be labeled "extremist" and banned.

Against that backdrop, Gallyamov said, the apocalyptic protest slogan that Navalny's aides have chosen to rally the crowds on April 21 "is not plucked from thin air" but rather a very real reflection of ominous developments on the ground.

"It will motivate many people, including those who are vacillating or afraid," Gallyamov said. "Some people might be thinking, 'I can't make it this time, I'll join next time.' But considering what's taking place, there may not be a next time."

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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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