Beating no one and reportedly detaining only a few, Russian law enforcement on August 31 adopted a complete change of tactics for the last unauthorized weekend protest in Moscow before September 8 elections to the Russian capital’s city council.
The unexpected soft touch comes 12 days after Russian President Vladimir Putin told international media that Russian officials need to ensure the right to protest.
Described as “an event against political repression,” Saturday’s roughly 2.5-kilometer march from Moscow’s Chistye Prudy neighborhood to Pushkin Square was intended to denounce the hundreds of arrests and detentions that have occurred since unauthorized demonstrations for the registration of independent and opposition candidates in next weekend’s local elections began in mid-July.
Moscow police estimated the overall crowd size at 750 people, a sliver of the approximately 50,000 who turned up for an August 10 protest allowed by city authorities.
Police vans, including those equipped with rooftop cameras, and water cannons were deployed along the route, but, this time, law enforcement appeared to restrict themselves to telling marchers to keep to the sidewalk and using loudspeakers to ask them to leave at the protest’s end.
Unlike in the past, police did not detain ahead of time the event’s most prominent organizer, 31-year-old anti-corruption activist Lyubov Sobol, who, filming with her phone, took part in the demonstration.
“I think it’s a victory for our civil society,” Sobol said of the lack of police interference. “[T]hey didn’t want to detain people in an event against political repression.”
“When the National Guard and the police don’t organize massive disorder, events take place peacefully, calmly,” wryly tweeted Sobol’s colleague, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
Two members of the Presidential Council for Human Rights and Civil Society, Nikolai Svanidze and Ilya Shablinsky, expressed satisfaction with law enforcement’s “reserved” conduct.
“We’re simply glad that no one is grabbing anyone, pushing anyone … because we’ve gotten used to something completely different,” Shablinsky commented to Current Time.
At an August 3 protest where over 1,000 people were estimated to have been detained, police hauled in one of the Council’s own members, Igor Kalyapin, for unclear reasons.
The brutal police crackdowns and hundreds of detentions, apparently often arbitrary, at these protests have made headlines worldwide, resulting in a pile-up of bad press for the Russian government.
As of August 30, 14 people had been arrested and face criminal charges under prosecutors’ so-called “Moscow case” on “mass disturbances” they allege were caused at an unsanctioned July 27 protest for city-council candidate registration. Two have confessed to using violence against police officers.
Despite video evidence, no charges appear to have been brought against law enforcement for excessive use of force.
At the end of the August 31 protest on Pushkin Square, though, National Guard and helmeted riot troops did not attempt a broad scoop-up. They linked arms to form a cordon blocking access to Tverskaya Street, which leads to the Kremlin and City Hall, but dispersed after one middle-aged woman’s televised tongue-lashing.
“Who are you protecting?” the woman repeatedly asked the cordon. “The answer is silence,” she said, turning to Current Time. “[T]hey’re simply committing a crime because they don’t let us live peacefully and freely. “
A milder remonstration at the unauthorized August 3 protest had resulted in the male critic’s immediate detention. This time, officers just looked elsewhere or shifted their feet.
Aleksei Polikhovich, a writer for law-enforcement monitor OVD-Info, termed police officers’ low-key responses on August 31 “some kind of random.”
“Why it worked out that way [today], I don’t know.”
One answer might lie at an August 19 press conference with French President Emanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, ahead of the G-7 summit hosted by France.
After Macron, who seeks a diplomatic thaw between the European Union and Russia, stressed the importance of freedom of speech, Putin publicly addressed the protests for the first time.
“Citizens have the right to peaceful protests in accordance with the law, and the authorities should ensure these rights,” he said to reporters. “But no one – not the government, not any groups of citizens – has the right to violate the laws and lead the situation to the absurd or to clashes with the government.”
Commenting for the Carnegie Moscow Center, Senior Fellow Alexander Baunov noted that “the Russian leadership simply wants to make sure that foreign governments don’t use the issue of civil liberties against Russia in their foreign policy.”
Nearly 153,600 people have signed an online petition to drop the Moscow case. Some 2,000 Russian and international scholars have petitioned the government to do the same.
Against that backdrop, Roman Kiselyov, the coordinator of a campaign for the release of 20-year-old arrested video blogger Yegor Zhukov, reasons that the government, not for the first time, is now trying out “various tactics and strategies” toward the protests to see “what the results will be.”
“I think that there also aren’t stupid people sitting there,” he said of Russian law enforcement.
In an August 30 interview with the TASS news agency, however, the head of the National Guard, Viktor Zolotov, gave little sense that he has been making a comparative study of international police responses to unsanctioned protests, as Amnesty International Russia Director Natalya Zvyagina later implied to Current Time.
“What can [our] attitude be toward actions connected with violations of the law and law and order?” Zolotov asked. “There can’t be any other approaches and standards here.”
Protest organizers are “knowingly” violating the law and “artificially” stirring up “heated discussions” connected with “the opinion that our country is not a law-based state,” he alleged.
What police pushback occurred on August 31 did not resonate broadly.
MBKh Media reported that two activists in Moscow were detained for hanging a banner declaring “For freedom of assembly, always and everywhere!” on the city government’s Department of Regional Security. They were later released.
In the Moscow suburb of Mytishchi, an election committee official was detained after staging a one-man picket in front of the local government administration building, OVD-Info stated.
And, as in the past, police officers at Moscow metro exits asked young people to sign warnings about attending an unauthorized demonstration, according to the Kommersant daily.
Amnesty International Russia Director Zvyagina believes that criticism from Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights Chairman Mikhail Fedotov and demands from “more than 33” human-rights organizations for thorough investigations into alleged police violence prompted law enforcement to reconsider their behavior.
“[They] tried to change the situation because all European documents [human rights treaties -- ed] demand that protesters have the right to express themselves, first of all,” Zvyagina said. Some law enforcement organs are investigating reports of police violence against protesters, she added.
Prosecutions, however, have not yet begun.