Russia’s February 14 courtyard rallies with flashlights to protest the imprisonment of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny suggest that the Kremlin’s critics have changed tactics in their struggle to mobilize public support, Russian analysts say. Officials’ and pro-government media’s heated reactions to the flashmobs indicate the stakes involved this parliamentary election year.
With sub-freezing temperatures and heavy snow, however, the turnout appeared relatively modest. In locations ranging from St. Petersburg in European Russia to Vladivostok and the Kamchatka peninsula in the Russian Far East, social media showed gatherings of a few dozen people at most.
Navalny activist Leonid Volkov had asked participants to go into their apartment buildings’ courtyards and turn on their phones’ flashlights for 15 minutes on February 14 at 8 p.m. to show that “love is stronger than fear.” Photos were to be posted on social media.
The proposal had sparked some criticism that the event would have no practical effect.
The government’s heated response suggested just the opposite, however.
Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Pyotr Tolstoi alleged to the Duma on February 10 that turning on flashlights in the dark is “color[-revolution] technology” reminiscent of “collaborators” in wartime Leningrad shining flashlights into the night sky to show Nazi bombers where to strike.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova went still further: Flashlights, flowers, and ribbons at anti-government protests in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, and the Middle East are methods promoted by the United States, European Union, and NATO, she claimed.
"We not only see, we know” that this can lead to a change of government, Zakharova commented to Ekho Moskvy. “There is nothing to hide, to invent.”
Pro-government media drew even stronger attention to the flashmobs by routinely denouncing them once Volkov announced plans on February 9 for a Valentine’s Day protest.
On the same day that Tolstoi and Zakharova spoke out, the activist was sentenced in absentia to 2 months in prison for supposedly encouraging youngsters to attend January’s unauthorized pro-Navalny protests.
Former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov attributed such responses to officials’ desire to show that they are in lockstep with President Putin. In a February 10 meeting with the editors of Russia’s main pro-government outlets, Putin had attributed the flashlight protests to “our opponents or potential opponents” seeking to exploit Russia’s pandemic-era frustrations with living conditions and incomes.
As a sign of that concern, Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor demanded that outlets, including Current Time, remove any coverage of the February 14 protests from their websites.
Yet despite warnings from the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Investigative Committee, and the Interior Ministry against the flashlight flashmobs, police did not respond in overwhelming force as at previous rallies. Protest monitor OVD-Info reported 19 detainees in Moscow, Kazan, Novosibirsk, and the Crimean city of Simferopol. (Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula has been under Russian occupation since 2014.)
In Moscow, 22-year-old cleaner Saidanvar Suleymanov was fired from the city-run coronavirus hospital No. 67 after tweeting a photo of his solo flashlight protest inside the hospital. The Moscow Department of Health, which oversees the Russian capital’s hospitals, said that the decision had been taken by Suleymanov’s employer, a cleaning company, rather than the hospital itself.
Some political analysts believe that the government has overreacted to the flashmobs.
Stepping out into a courtyard with a flashlight in no way violates either the Russian Constitution or the law, stressed analyst Andrei Kolesnikov. The official reactions indicate that authoritarianism has reached “the highest stage of development” in Russia, he added.
Gallyamov, however, sees it as part of a struggle between Navalny supporters and the Kremlin for the loyalties of undecided voters in a parliamentary election year. “We have to understand that there’s now a fight going on over the minds of those sitting on the fence, over whom they will join – the authorities or the opposition,” he commented.
Political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov wagers that, rather than taking the time to organize “traditional” protests in city centers, Navalny’s team will now also try out smaller, “original” events like flashmobs that do not spark as harsh a police response. “I’m confident that there’re a lot of interesting solutions in supply,” he said.
The government, though, also had an idea for Valentine’s Day.
Following Volkov’s announcement, the state-run RosMolodyozh, a federal agency that oversees policies affecting young people, called for Russian youth on February 14 to post photos on social media that show that “Russia is a country of love."
The campaign's name prompted considerable scoffing on Twitter, with some Russian users using the hashtag to post photos of police detentions.
The state-run TV station Rossia-24 had a comeback for that, however. In a series of apparently staged rendez-vous, the channel filmed police officers across Russia presenting their girlfriends with bouquets of flowers on February 14. In one instance, the officer serenaded his sweetheart with a saxophone.
Yet there was no pro-government response to the day's other anti-Putin event. Bearing red roses and other flowers, women in Moscow and St. Petersburg lined up along white ribbons to condemn the imprisonment of women for political reasons. The participants took as their model Belarus’ all-women protests in 2020 against police violence.
Local media estimated that around 200 women were present for the protest on downtown Moscow’s pedestrian Arbat street.
In St. Petersburg, on the banks of the Neva River, 70-some women stood behind a white ribbon, with Kresty Prison in the background, to read out loud 20th-century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, a condemnation of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s Great Terror.
Riot police did not attempt to disperse the women in either location – a fact that, in Moscow, blogger-activist Aleksandra Mitroshina attributed both to law enforcement’s desire to avoid negative PR and the bigoted view that women do not represent “any significant political force.”
Echoing Zakharova’s belief that NATO stands behind such events, one group of men, carrying toy rifles and wearing metal helmets marked NATO, appeared on the scene to hand out fake dollars to the protesters. The men were members of the pro-Kremlin NOD movement, the independent outlet MBKh Media reported.
Since late January, videos of alleged pro-Putin rallies by doctors, students, companies, and others also have surfaced. However, in some instances, government supporters simply misrepresented videos as from pro-Putin demonstrations, Current Time reported.
For now, neither Navalny’s nor Putin’s supporters have the upper hand in this battle for voters' affections, commented Gallyamov.
Nor is little effect expected from the European Union’s threats to sanction Russia still further for Navalny’s imprisonment – threats that prompted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to warn of a complete rupture in Moscow’s ties with the EU. (Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later claimed that media had taken the remarks out of context.)
“Nothing in this life will force them to let Navalny go – not any sanctions,” said Kolesnikov.
An appeal of Navalny’s 3 1/2-year prison sentence for fraud will be held on February 20. (Current Time will cover the trial live, beginning at 10 a.m. Moscow time.) The jailed politician currently is on trial for supposedly defaming a World War II veteran.
Some Russians doubt that flashlight rallies can make any difference in such a situation, but Navalny activist Volkov emphasizes the need to keep the long term in mind.
“[O]vercoming Putinism is a very, very long, big job that will consist of dozens, if not hundreds, of individual events…” he commented to Current Time. “And each specific rally should be assessed only based on whether it leads forward to victory. Which, most likely, will not be soon.”
-With additional reporting from Interfax and TASS