Despite freezing temperatures, starting on January 23rd, thousands of Russians have been gathering in different corners of the country in support of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The Kremlin’s outspoken critic, Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17th after he had spent several months in Berlin where he was recovering from being poisoned with a nerve-agent Novichok. The opposition leader was detained immediately after landing in Russia for violating the terms of a suspended sentence he had received back in 2014. On February 2nd, the court sentenced Alexei Navalny to three and a half years in prison. The court did take into account the time Navalny had spent under house arrest, therefore the opposition leader would spend two years and eight months behind bars.
On January 23rd, protests in support of Navalny took place in at least 122 Russian towns and cities, with estimates showing that over 100,000 people took to the streets. The largest rallies were held in Moscow. Reuters estimated that up to 40,000 people had participated in the demonstrations in the Russian capital, while the authorities reported a strikingly different number – 4,000 people. Solidarity events were also held worldwide: Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, the United States, Moldova, and Serbia were among the countries where people gathered in support of Russian demonstrators. According to the OVD-Info monitoring group, at least 3,945 people across Russia were detained on January 23rd during the demonstrations. Photos and video footage showing police violently dispersing the crowds emerged on the Internet. In some cities, law enforcement officers apprehended protesters and dragged them to the police vehicles. There are also reports of police brutality during detentions in several regions with police beating the people and forcing them to lay face down in the snow.
The following week, on January 31st, the Russian authorities used more aggressive tactics to prevent the protests from happening. Moscow downtown was shut off, with roads around the Kremlin blocked, and several metro stations being shut down four hours before the rallies were scheduled to take place. Given all these restrictions, the turnout was not as high as that on January 23rd. However, more than 5,000 people across the country were detained on January 31st, and instances of police brutality were once again recorded by the protesters and journalists alike. On January 27th, the authorities also raided the homes and offices of Navalny’s colleagues, in a clear intimidation attempt. Internet outages were reported in different regions of Russia on both January 23rd and 31st.
Following the court ruling of February 2nd, Navalny’s associates called for protests against the prison sentence. Massive police forces were yet again deployed to deal with the protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and estimates show that over 1,400 people across the country have been detained on February 2nd. Navalny’s legal team has pledged to appeal the court ruling, arguing that the trial was an attempt to silence the opposition leader. Additionally, his lawyers announced that they will go to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge the court decision.
When it comes to international reactions to the events in Russia, the U.S. Department of State released a statement condemning “the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists” following the protests held on January 23rd and calling for “the immediate and unconditional release of Aleksey Navalny” as well as detained protesters. The statement also urged the Russian authorities to cooperate with the international community’s investigation into Navalny’s poisoning and explain the use of a chemical weapon. The EU High Representative Josep Borrell released a declaration saying that “the European Union condemns the Russian authorities’ decision to sentence Mr. Navalny and considers it unacceptable as it is politically motivated and runs counter to Russia’s international human rights obligations.” Similarly to the U.S., the EU called for the release of Navalny as well as the detained protesters. The EU’s High Representative also commented that he was going to press for the release of the Kremlin critic during his upcoming visit to Moscow. The EU ministers have also been debating imposing sanctions on Russia after the detention of Navalny but decided to hold off for now. The G7 Foreign Ministers also released a statement condemning the detention of Navalny as well as protesters and journalists.
During a briefing on January 28th, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that instead of criticizing Russian authorities, Western countries should “focus on their own problems” and take care of “the preservation of democracy at home.” Additionally, on January 27th, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement in response to the G7 statement calling it a “flagrant intervention” in Russian internal affairs and an “openly unfriendly move.”