Russia's opposition is regrouping for a spring offensive
By ISABELLE KHURSHUDYAN | The Washington Post | Published: February 13, 2021
MOSCOW — Russia's opposition has gone into what it calls a strategic pause.
The decision came after more than 10,000 people were detained in back-to-back weekends of mass street protests throughout the country demanding the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Rather than attempt to keep the protest momentum going now – and take expected further blows from security forces – Navalny's camp decided to regroup. Supporters were asked to conserve their energy, with an eye toward returning to the streets in spring and trying to back candidates in September parliamentary elections to challenge the grip of President Vladimir Putin's governing party.
The moves by the opposition reflect other concerns: trying to move ahead with Navalny out of the picture. Earlier this month, he was sentenced to more than two years in prison for parole violations – charges he and the international community have said are politically motivated.
Other cases are pending and could bring more jail time for Navalny, who returned to Russia last month after recovering in Germany from a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning in August in Siberia – an attack he blames on the Russian state. The Kremlin denies any link.
Navalny's backers simply could not sustain punishment week after week from security forces, said Leonid Volkov, Navalny's chief-of-staff who has become the a leading voice of Navalny's operation while living abroad.
"If we go out every week, thousands more will be detained, and hundreds more beaten," Volkov said in a live broadcast on Navalny's YouTube channelon Feb. 5.
Russia's sweeping crackdowns have hit Navalny's inner circle, leaving it splintered and temporarily weakened. Some key members are under house arrest in Moscow until March 23 and members of his regional offices have been detained, too.
Volkov said continued protests also could hurt the goal of winning more opposition seats in the September elections.
"The work of the regional headquarters will be paralyzed, and it will be impossible to work on elections. This is not what Alexei wants from us," Volkov said. "Alexei has asked us to concentrate on this autumn," when State Duma elections will be held.
Some analysts said the move to suspend protest marches showed Navalny's camp learned from last year's protests in Belarus.
Demonstrations in Belarus were held every day for months after elections that opposition groups – and many Western nations – said were rigged in favor of longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko. But the movement steadily lost momentum and Lukashenko remains in power.
That likely informed the Kremlin, too.
If Lukashenko's regime could withstand the protests in Minsk, which had more than 200,000 people on the streets some weekends, then the Russian government was well-equipped to wait out its own unrest with significantly smaller turnout in its two biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, analysts said.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst, wrote on Facebook that the decision by Volkov was the correct strategy, but the messaging was faulty.
"We should have avoided the headlines 'Volkov announced that he refused to hold a rally next weekend,' because it looks like a retreat," Gallyamov wrote.
Oleg Kozlovsky, a researcher at Amnesty International who previously worked at Navalny's offices, said in Facebook post that the "Kremlin is opening champagne" at Volkov's announcement, calling it a "defeat."
Volkov announced on Tuesday a new protest initiative, which he said would still keep supporters safe: calling on Russians in major cities to stand outside their homes and hold up their cellphone flashlights at 8 p.m. for 15 minutes.
"It may seem to you that these 15 minutes won't change anything, but, in fact, they will change everything," he said on the Telegram messaging app.
According to a recent survey from the independent Levada Center, 45% of respondents said they expect political protests to erupt again – the highest indicator since 1998. But only 15% said they would be willing to attend political rallies, a 4-point decline from Levada's previous survey on protests in November 2020.
Evgeny, a 27-year-old first-time protester from St. Petersburg, said he understood the decision to stop street rallies for now because "it's winter and it's cold, so calling people out every weekend just won't work."
"But it's not clear to me why then a week later, Volkov suggested we all come out and do this thing with the phone flashlights on Feb. 14," Evgeny said, adding that it contradicts the original goal of regrouping to focus on the fall elections.
Evgeny – who declined to provide his surname because the demonstrations are considered illegal by Russian authorities – said he would participate in the flashlight protest even if he's not a fan of the approach.
"I think now it's necessary to assert this political position in any way possible," he said. "We need to go out just to show that we exist and there's a lot of us."
Ahead of Moscow city elections two years ago, Navalny first championed a system he dubbed "Smart Voting" – nforming supporters which candidates had the best chance of defeating rivals from Putin's ruling United Russia party.
Navalny was promoting the tactic during an August trip to Siberia when he was poisoned with a nerve agent. Less than a month later, Smart Voting again showed it could be successful. In the two cities Navalny visited, Tomsk and Novosibirsk, United Russia lost its majority in city councils.
But Smart Voting already faces challenges. Members of Navalny's team are typically prohibited from running, and Russia's opposition contains various factions outside Navalny's network.
Meanwhile, in what it said was a bid to "prevent the 'Belarusian scenario,'" a Russian business association asked lawmakers to ban individuals labeled "foreign agents" and their family members from running for political office, singling out Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya.
In Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya gained surprising support for president after her husband, a prominent critic of Lukashenko, was jailed ahead of the election.
Navalnaya, who has never stated an intention to seek political office, reportedly left Russia on Wednesday. German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that Navalnaya landed in Frankfurt for a "private visit," citing unnamed sources. It's unclear if or when Navalnaya plans to return to Moscow. She was detained twice attending January weekend protests.
"I expect there to be as many people or maybe even more at protests in the spring and summer," said Evgeny, the St. Petersburg protester. "There'll just be new aims, and I expect the government to provide these aims for us."