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With Little Government Support, Some Russians Under Lockdown Are Resorting To Protest -- Both Online And Offline

Riot police confront participants of a rally against the lockdown in Vladikavkaz on April 20.
Riot police confront participants of a rally against the lockdown in Vladikavkaz on April 20.

MOSCOW -- An opera singer spent weeks encouraging residents of Vladikavkaz, the capital of Russia's North Ossetia region, to protest against a lockdown imposed by the authorities in connection with the coronavirus pandemic.

In his final address to followers on YouTube, he accused officials of using "a virus that doesn’t exist" to steal from the populace.

Late on April 17, police arrested Vadim Cheldiyev at his home in St. Petersburg and charged him under a new law against spreading "fake news" about COVID-19. A proponent of fringe conspiracy theories, Cheldiyev had garnered a sizeable support base in part by playing on nostalgia for the Soviet Union -- and branding the coronavirus a hoax.

But despite his arrest, Cheldiyev's supporters in Vladikavkaz, his hometown, heeded his calls and descended on the city's main square on April 20. In addition to his release, the crowd of 2,000 demanded the lifting of self-isolation rules and the resignation of the regional governor, Vyacheslav Bitarov.

"I didn't make up this disease," Bitarov said when he came to the square to placate the crowd. "And there's only one treatment for it: staying at home."

Russian Police Break Up Anti-Lockdown Protest
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In Vladikavkaz, like in other Russian cities, critics say anger over shelter-at-home orders and other movement restrictions introduced by the authorities is fueled by a widespread sense that the government is doing too little to support those who have lost jobs or their sources of income since the measures were introduced.

"We demand work," Oleg Bokoyev, one of the protesters in Vladikavkaz, told RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service. "We'll earn money for bread ourselves, just give us work."

With the International Monetary Fund forecasting a 5 percent reduction in Russia's GDP this year, and oil prices plummeting to unprecedented levels, President Vladimir Putin and his government have sought to assuage the population with promises of handouts to furloughed workers and support for small and medium-sized business.

But the economic effects of the lockdown have begun to hit. In March, 67,000 sole proprietors shuttered their businesses, according to the financial newspaper Vedomosti -- a 77 percent increase over the same period last year.

A poll commissioned by the Central Bank this month found that 35 percent of Russians had experienced a decline in their income, with 16 percent saying the drop has been significant. A third of respondents said they expected the situation to worsen in coming weeks. Real wages in Russia have already been falling for years.

The protest in Vladikavkaz was Russia's first major political rally since the pandemic began, and a show of defiance against a state-imposed lockdown that began on March 30 in Moscow and was quickly replicated in other regions.

The rally lasted for several hours and riot police violently dispersed it by the end of the day. Authorities said that 39 people were detained and Cheldiyev, who had been brought from St. Petersburg to North Ossetia after his arrest, has been ordered held in pretrial detention for two months.

Alik Pukhayev, a Vladikavkaz blogger who was at the protest, said many participants identify with the unorthodox views apparently held by Cheldiyev, a singer formerly with the famed Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg -- including his denial of the pandemic. But anger over falling incomes and unemployment was the real driving force.

Virtual Protests

"People have been required to self-isolate for a long time, but at the same time they see how large factories and stores continue to work," Pukhayev told RFE/RL in a phone interview. "And their small businesses are going bankrupt. Many people have lost their jobs."

Russia, of course, is not alone in facing public ire over economic losses amid the pandemic; Brazil and the United States have seen street protests against state-imposed lockdowns, and governments in many countries are seeking to weather criticism over perceived inaction and inadequate state support.

But with unauthorized rallies banned in Russia, at least according to the state's interpretation of the law, many people have organized "virtual protests" -- taking to apps like Yandex Maps and GPS services to "gather" outside government buildings in major cities and post comments denouncing what they say is official indifference.

"Pay people benefits! What can people who lost their jobs live on?!" read one comment posted in the large southern city of Rostov-on-Don. "Feed my children!" read another.

Yandex's apps are usually used by drivers to inform other drivers of traffic and other obstacles on the roads. Most comments disappeared soon after they surfaced, and the Russian Internet giant, which has come under Kremlin pressure in the past, faced accusations that it removed them to avoid trouble from the state. A representative of the company's GPS service told Vedomosti that the comments time out if too many are posted at the same time, in order to avoid overloading the navigation service.

But while virtual rallies are taking hold, there have been few signs that street protests of the kind that took place in Vladikavkaz will spread beyond North Ossetia. Authorities in Vladikavkaz promised "all necessary assistance" for those who have lost their jobs, and the protest was not repeated in the two days since it was held.

WATCH: Videos have emerged on social media that show Russian police forcibly detaining people for allegedly breaking laws imposed as part of efforts to restrict the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

Videos Show Forcible Detentions In Russia's COVID-19 Lockdown
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Elsewhere in Russia, faced with hefty fines and jail time for even leaving home without good reason, many are sticking instead to online platforms to voice discontent.

Yekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political scientist, said Putin's government may not be seriously tested until the first restrictions are lifted and Russians start to see what longer-term economic carnage the pandemic has wrought.

"I expect we'll see lighter restrictions starting the middle of May,” she said in a phone interview. "And then the real politics will start. Not about quarantines, but about poverty."

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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.