“The authorities have chosen to solve their problems by rejecting even the illusion of free elections and preventing opposition candidates from participating,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The cruelty and violation of constitutional rights is also being used as a means of intimidating not only the opposition, but the pro-Kremlin majority.”
Thousands took to the streets of central Moscow on Saturday to demand that independent candidates be allowed to run in upcoming elections for city parliament. It was the latest demonstration in a protest movement that began two weeks ago after the city election commission rejected the candidacies of several opposition-minded candidates, citing falsified supporter signatures.
Frustration among ordinary Russians has been growing over issues ranging from toxic trash heaps poisoning small towns to economic problems and, most recently, independent candidates being prevented from running for office.
The demonstrators on Saturday were met by riot police and National Guard soldiers in full tactical gear. Many of those who were detained were released Saturday night. Those who remained in custody Sunday evening awaited court hearings. The typical punishment for taking part in an unsanctioned protest is a fine of 30,000 rubles — about $475 — or at least five days in jail.
Before the rally outside City Hall on Saturday began, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin warned on Twitter that authorities would maintain public order.
The night before the protest, opposition leaders including Ilya Yashin and Lyubov Sobol were detained, taken to police stations outside of Moscow and fined. Dmitry Gudkov, another prominent leader of this protest movement, was detained on his way into Moscow on Saturday morning. He, too, was taken to a station outside the city.
Yashin was released and returned to Moscow to call for another protest next Saturday. He was detained again on Saturday evening.
Gudkov was arrested at a store on Sunday while purchasing food for protesters still being held in police custody.
Authorities appeared ready to keep pressure on the protest movement’s leaders.
Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has not been an active participant in the protests. He was arrested last week for calling on demonstrators to protest on Saturday and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Navalny was hospitalized Sunday with a severe allergic reaction. His associates say they do not immediately suspect foul play — jail conditions in Russia are often unhygienic.
Before the demonstration on Saturday, authorities closed streets and metro station exits around City Hall and ordered protesters to disperse. Arrests began hours before the protest was to begin. By 2 p.m., some 200 people had been detained.
Several groups of what appeared to be 500 to 1,000 people gathered outside police barricades on side streets. Videos posted on social media showed protesters pushing their way through one cordon before police could seal the gap.
The intensity of the police response increased as the day progressed. Videos of beatings spread across social networks in the late afternoon. Russian media reported that some plainclothes officers found themselves at the wrong end of police batons.
As the sun set Saturday, police were struggling to respond to multiple groups of protesters moving through other areas of the city center. Estimates of the number of participants on Saturday ranged from 3,500 to 10,000.
The largely state-controlled media defended the police. Some compared their actions to the French police response to Yellow Vest protests. Others said the demonstrators attacked police officers.
The mayor and other officials were silent on the protests Sunday. Opposition leaders called for another round of demonstrations next weekend.
“I think the government is smart enough to know that this is not going to get the opposition off the streets,” said Sam Greene, head of the Russia program at King’s College London. “So there must be another reason they are taking these risks. One is that they are trying to dissuade fence-sitters from joining the opposition.”
Another possibility, he said, is that Saturday’s crackdown was less about the opposition than the Kremlin’s relationship with the Russian political elite. Legally, Vladimir Putin may serve as president only until 2024. Uncertainty about what happens when his current term expires is driving anxiety among the rival factions he mediates.
“Autocrats are usually brought down by elite defection,” Greene said. “Mass protests sometimes come into play, but if Putin looks around at history and at the world to see what he should be most worried about, it is most likely going to be elite defections. So I think this is designed to send a message to the elite that they don’t have to worry.”