According to the NGO OVD-Info, at least 4,710 protesters were arrested in Russia on Sunday, including Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of opposition leader Alexeï Navalny. At least 82 journalists are among those arrested. The violence of the arrests signals an increasingly obvious exasperation of the authorities towards a protest awakened by the imprisonment of Alexey Navalny on January 17, upon his return to the country.
The most popular slogan among the protesters was “Putin, thief!”, A usual cry among pro-Navalny people, but which has taken on a particular resonance this month. An embarrassing investigation published on YouTube by the Navalny Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK in Russian) indeed accuses Vladimir Putin of having had a palace built more or less directly on the last of the state, at a cost approaching a billion of dollars. The video has been viewed 103 million times. Vladimir Putin replied that neither he nor his relatives own the palace.
Threat of prison
Friday, eleven days after the publication of the investigation, Russian billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, a childhood friend of Vladimir Putin, said he was “the beneficiary” of the palace. On the other hand, he did not explain why this gigantic luxurious complex was permanently guarded by the Federal Protection Service (FSO), which is supposed to protect only the first figures of the State.
To counter the mobilization, the police used great means, in particular in the capital. Riot police and the National Guard were deployed all around downtown Moscow to block access to 11 metro stations near the Kremlin. In St. Petersburg, police have banned access to the famous Nevsky Prospect, traditionally used by protesters.
The aim was to prevent the repetition of the wave of demonstrations on Saturday January 23 through 120 Russian cities, a mobilization unprecedented for a decade. About 3,800 protesters were arrested that day. Many of them face heavy prison sentences or fines of up to 3,500 francs.
By blocking major thoroughfares and immediately dispersing protest groups, authorities have prevented the opposition from re-showing the image of crowds hostile to Vladimir Putin. In the information war between the opposition and the Russian power, it is a losing game for the first. But images of police brutality, of a policeman threatening the crowd with a gun (in St. Petersburg), or others using their tasers to stun protesters, does not increase Russian power. This violence is not broadcast on public television but is spreading like wildfire on social networks.
The blocking of main arteries, and in Moscow’s case of the entire city center, is inspired by the methods used by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus every weekend since last August. Protesters are confined to the outskirts, play cat and mouse with the police and struggle to regroup. Growing risks for protesters and freezing temperatures may weaken the wave of anger over Alexey Navalny’s arrest. Unless the latter is sentenced to a long prison term on February 2.