Last week, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading anti-corruption campaigner, completed another month-long administrative jail term for one of the many anti-Kremlin rallies organized by his supporters. In the eyes of the Russian authorities, these protests are not free assembly protected under Article 31 of Russia’s Constitution (and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights) but “unsanctioned demonstrations” punishable by fines or jail under the Code of Administrative Offenses. Repeated “violations” under this clause can give the authorities ground to press criminal charges under Article 212.1 of the Penal Code — and would carry the punishment of up to five years’ imprisonment.
In Navalny’s case, the police needed one more arrest to be able to trigger Article 212.1, so he probably expected to be back behind bars fairly soon. The swiftness must still have surprised him, though. The stony faces of the police officers as they returned his belt and cellphone did not bode well. The journalists who assembled to meet Navalny at the entrance to the detention center did not get a chance to ask even one question. Ten seconds after he walked out of the door a free man, he was intercepted by uniformed officers who herded him into a police van on a new charge of “organizing mass disturbances.”
The judge in Moscow’s Simonovsky District Court gave Navalny all of 20 minutes to review the charges before defending himself; no lawyer could be found on such short notice. Navalny was found guilty of organizing protests against the Russian government’s pension reform on Sept. 9. According to the charges, demonstrators caused harm to the health of police officers and scratched the paint on a police Toyota. The argument that Navalny had been in jail since the end of August and could not possibly organize anything on Sept. 9 did not make an impression. The sentence was 20 more days of administrative arrest, back at the same detention center he had just been released from. “What was the point of even holding this hearing?” the activist asked. “We knew the result from the beginning.” He said he was certain the new sentence was intended for a future criminal indictment.
In any case, by the time of his release Navalny will have already spent 140 days in jail since last year on consecutive administrative arrests. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil magnate turned prisoner of conscience who was incarcerated by the Russian government for more than a decade, has noted that the Kremlin is effectively giving Navalny the same sentence it had given him, “but piece by piece.”
Navalny’s latest arrest comes as the slogan he had championed before Russia’s “winter of protest” in 2011-2012 — “Anyone But United Russia” — suddenly acquired a new lease on life. Back then, the tactic advocated by Navalny, who urged his supporters to vote for any of the officially sanctioned parties in Russia’s parliamentary election except for Vladimir Putin’s political party, United Russia, resulted in the ruling party falling, even officially, below the 50 percent mark. This forced the regime to resort to massive election fraud, which in turn triggered the largest protests under Putin’s rule, as tens of thousands of people went to the streets of Moscow to demand a new vote.
Back then, with a combination of (minor) concessions and (significant) tightening of the screws, the Kremlin regained the initiative and put the opposition back on the defensive. In the past few weeks, however, the idea of “Anyone But United Russia” made a dramatic comeback. In one regional election after another — in the Primorye region, the Republic of Khakassia, the Khabarovsky region and the Vladimir region — candidates nominated by United Russia and endorsed by Putin lost heavily to little-known shadow boxers who were only intended to be technical challengers and give the process a pretense of legitimacy. Long deprived of meaningful elections with a genuine alternative on the ballot, Russians are beginning to use the sham procedures orchestrated by the authorities to send a strong message to the Kremlin. It is a development that recalls May 1989, when many East Germans used the single-slate local “elections” there to cross out the lists of candidates officially approved by the ruling party. That turned out to be a major warning sign for the communist system months before the wall of the Berlin Wall.
Putin’s regime has shown to be one of the most resilient authoritarian systems of modern times. Using a mix of repression, censorship, generous inducements (bankrolled by oil revenue) and political flexibility, it has managed to maintain dominance for nearly two decades. During this time, all the institutions of the state, beginning with elections, have been hollowed out and made seemingly resistant to any outside challenge. As many similar regimes have found out in the past, however, any challenge that can generate popular backing will always find a way.