Anti-Putin Protesters Have Started Wrapping Themselves in the Russian Flag

The country’s leading opposition leader has made a bold move to claim the banner of patriotism for his movement.

Riot police detain a man covered with Russian national flag during an anti-corruption protest organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on Tverskaya Street in central Moscow, Russia, June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva - RTS16OSX
Riot police detain a man covered with Russian national flag during an anti-corruption protest organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on Tverskaya Street in central Moscow, Russia, June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva - RTS16OSX

MOSCOW — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny took a gamble on Monday. And he pulled it off.

Late Sunday night, the vociferous presidential hopeful announced a sudden change to his authorized rally against government corruption when he switched its location from a large avenue in the city’s north to the very heart of Moscow, without the required permission.

“This is not our decision, but the decision of the Kremlin,” he said on his popular YouTube channel, adding that the authorities had pressured the providers of the stage and sound equipment to not work with him, leaving him no choice but to move the rally. But before he could even attend, Navalny was detained outside his home, accused of organizing a public rally without permission, sent to court and now faces a hefty fine. His wife Yulia said plans for the protest would go ahead.

His followers heeded. Thousands of mostly young people, took to Pushkin Square and Moscow’s main thoroughfare, Tverskaya, where they chanted “Russia without Putin!” and “Putin is a thief!” Navalny’s team planned demonstrations in more than 200 cities across the world’s largest country, protesting what they say is President Vladimir Putin’s system of widespread corruption. Organizers said thousands more attended those rallies, from Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad.

The government has yet to comment on the Moscow protests, which created severe disruption in the center of the city. Cafes were shut down by riot police and people ordered to stay indoors at shops. State-run television showed fireworks displays elsewhere in the country, while Putin was busy holding a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin, handing out national awards to noted scientists and artists.

At first, Navalny’s radical decision to urge thousands of supporters to march peacefully through central Moscow seemed misguided, illogical even. June 12 is Russia Day, a national holiday commemorating the 1990 declaration of sovereignty amid the Soviet Union’s breakup. Traditionally, families stroll Moscow’s boulevards, enjoying a day off. Concerts are usually held. For many Russians, it’s a time to savor the beginning of summer and not be bothered by work. It’s certainly not when Russians tend to think about politics.

The potentially incongruous timing wasn’t lost on Navalny. Posting a photograph of his detention from his apartment window on Monday, a tongue-in-cheek tweet from Navalny’s account read: “Happy Russia Day!”

Sure enough, a surreal scene unfolded as protesters and relaxation-seeking Muscovites descended on the same areas in the city center. For Russia Day this year, the Moscow city government was holding a historical reenactment festival. People dressed as Cossacks and soldiers from the Crimean and World wars were dotted around the capital, ready to pose with children by sandbags and miniature cannons. Large signs celebrating Russia’s unspoiled nature and ethnic diversity were barely looked at by passersby as protesters sought refuge behind them from riot police. In spectacular irony, the events of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which ousted the tsar and replaced him with a Communist government, were also being staged, a few streets over from the protest.

By moving the protest to the city center, to a wide road that leads straight to Red Square, and to the Kremlin beside it, Navalny managed to send a strong message of resilience to Putin. The government may be keeping quiet, but they definitely would notice.

“He’s a genius for moving the protest, a real star,” said 30-year-old Dmitry, a production company manager who only gave his first name. “He wanted to show the world that enough is enough and he took a risk and it worked,” he told me, balancing his 1-year-old daughter on his shoulders. Both wore small rubber ducks on their heads, symbols of the opposition movement ever since Navalny made a video, which has been viewed over 22 million times, about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s ill-gotten wealth, including a luxurious estate with a duck house on a pond. Monday’s protests were the latest expression of a national anti-corruption movement that followed in the wake of that film’s release in March. It poses the biggest direct threat to Putin’s rule in years.

Presidential elections are slated for March of next year. Though he has not announced his candidacy, it is widely believed that Putin will run and win. But while Navalny’s bid may seem quixotic, his popularity clearly alarms the Kremlin.

Riot police were out in full force on Monday, hungrily roaming through the crowds, looking for people holding up signs or anything that indicated they were protesting. Once they seized on a given protester, they grabbed them by their limbs, and in some cases beat them mercilessly with batons, before carrying them off into police vans amid chants of “For shame!” from the crowd. According to OVD-Info, a nongovernmental organization, almost 700 people have been arrested in Moscow, and hundreds more in St. Petersburg. Several hours into the protest, police closed off Moscow’s main drag — which had been made into pedestrian zones for the Russia Day celebrations — and began using brute force to cordon off protesters, and some journalists, which caused several stampedes.

Despite the mass arrests in the March protests, the large turnouts on Monday prove that Navalny’s campaign has managed to maintain momentum. “People were scared when we heard he was moving it to the center, but it turned out to be even better,” said 20-year-old student Alexander, who was busy capturing the arrests around him on his iPhone.

Similar to the March protests, young people predominated in Monday’s rally. One of the more commonly seen signs read, “Corruption robs the future.” According to a November report by Credit Suisse, Russia is the most unequal major economic power. The country’s vast wealth is disproportionately concentrated in the hands of a few dozen billionaires with close ties to Putin. A slump in the price of oil, Russia’s key export, and painful sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union have compounded the economic pain.

Cynicism would have been one natural response to such problems. But Navalny’s patriotism has rubbed off on his flock, and chants of “Russia!” reverberated through the protest crowds. At one point, balloons in the white, red, and blue colors of the Russian flag were released into the sky to rapturous applause. “We have two options,” explained 28-year-old Ekaterina, who was draped in the national flag. “Either we leave the country or we fight for it.”

Photo credit: Tatyana Makeyeva/REUTERS

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

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