Russian citizens are expressing greater protest sentiment as the spread of the coronavirus and the state’s fight against it has left many people dissatisfied, including doctors and small-business owners, said one of the nation’s most influential opposition activists.
"Right now the degree of protest activity among citizens is probably one of the highest in recent times,” Aleksei Navalny, the founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in a video interview with RFE/RL from his Moscow home on May 20.
"Such rage is brewing now among those that earlier were not visible in protest activity or direct politics. These are doctors, representatives of small business, and ordinary people that are now without an income," he said.
Russia has been hit hard by the coronavirus, with more than 300,000 registered cases, the second-highest globally after the United States. The virus has put huge pressure on the nation’s underfunded health-care system, with dozens of doctors dying from COVID-19 and some taking their own lives.
Moreover, small-business owners are being pushed to the brink of bankruptcy amid the resulting lockdown, while some of the growing number of unemployed people are facing a cash crunch. Yet the government has been slow to tap the more than $160 billion it has meticulously saved up over the years in a rainy-day fund. Navalny and his team have proposed a plan that calls for the government to make more of the fund’s cash available to citizens and small businesses.
During the interview, he criticized the government for prioritizing spending on the security services and state companies like Rostekh, the defense conglomerate, and not the nation’s health-care system. The government needs to double or triple spending on health care in order to eradicate its deficiencies, Navalny said.
Russia’s last significant outbreak of protest activity occurred in Moscow during the summer of 2019, when several opposition politicians seeking a seat in the city parliament had their candidacy rejected by the local election commission, sparking weeks of rallies that brought tens of thousands of people into the streets.
Vote On Constitutional Changes
Navalny said his team was focused on agitating against the upcoming vote to approve constitutional changes that could allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036 and regional elections in September.
Navalny called on people not to participate in the vote and that if they are forced to go to the polls, to cast their ballot against the constitutional changes. Russian elections are often marred by gross violations, such as ballot stuffing, and are closely observed by opposition activists.
Navalny last year recommended citizens vote against candidates representing the ruling United Russia party, a strategy that cost some pro-Putin politicians their seat.
However, amid concerns about crowds during the coronavirus threat, the Russian government earlier this month passed legislation allowing online voting, a move criticized by the opposition as opening the door to vote falsification beyond the detection of observers.
"No mechanisms of control exist at all. In principle, there is no way to monitor the results," Navalny told RFE/RL.
He said the growing frustration among the population opens the window for the Communist Party and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) -- the so-called "loyal" opposition parties that the government tolerates -- to win more votes in September, but said he expects the state to hamper their efforts. The government has already imposed new election-campaign regulations and given the police greater power, he said.
"There are possibilities opening up for [the Communists and the LDPR], but the government is now systematically shutting all these windows of opportunity," he said.