Preventative measures Russian opposition activists face official crackdown ahead of planned protests in support of Navalny
Immediately after opposition figure Alexey Navalny was remanded in custody on January 18, his team called for countrywide rallies the following Saturday to protest his detention. Since then, the Russian authorities have been taking preventative measures to stop the demonstrations. On January 20 and 21, law enforcement officers began showing up at the homes of opposition figures, activists, and journalists across Russia to issue warnings from state prosecutors against participating in the rallies. Meanwhile, Russia’s censorship agency has orders to block online content containing calls for demonstrations. And in some parts of the country, the local authorities are already handing out fines and launching criminal investigations over protests that have yet to take place.
On January 20 and 21, police officers across Russia began making rounds to the homes of Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) staff members, as well as journalists and activists, to issue warnings from state prosecutors regarding planned rallies in support of jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny.
Law enforcement officers visited the homes of FBK employee Nikolay Lyaskin, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, and “Navalny LIVE” producer Lyubov Sobol. Yarmysh and Sobol didn’t open their doors for the police. According to Yarmysh, the policemen continued to keep watch outside her door and were talking to her neighbors.
Sobol, on the other hand, broadcast her conversation with the police via live stream. She invited them to leave documents in her mailbox, saying “Did you bring them? Well done, you fulfilled your duty to Putin.” Reportedly, there were also officers keeping watch near her home.
Update. Moscow police arrested Lyubov Sobol later in the day on Thursday. She was taken to the Donskoy District Police Station. Law enforcement officers are reportedly charging her with an administrative violation for inciting protests.
Law enforcement officers detained FBK lawyer Vladlen Los at a Moscow hotel, where he chose to spend the night because there were policemen camped out near his home. Los told MBX Media that someone phoned the police, supposedly because there were “shouts” coming from his hotel room. “I’m now at the Danilovsky District Police Station,” he said.
Update. Vladlen Los, who is a Belarusian national, has received an official notice requiring him to leave Russia by Monday, January 25. In addition, Los says he has been banned from returning to the country until November 27, 2023. Though Los didn’t specify the grounds for his expulsion, FBK director Ivan Zhdanov told Novaya Gazeta that it is likely in connection with the planned protests.
To deliver a warning to Oleg Stepanov, the coordinator of Navalny’s team office in Moscow, the police went to the home of activist Elizaveta Nesterova. She told the district police officer that she couldn’t help them find Stepanov. The officer then proceeded to read out a warning (addressed to Stepanov) while standing outside the closed door to Nesterova’s apartment. “And you ask why crime is high,” Stepanov wrote in a tweet describing the incident.
Police officers also paid visits to Ekho Moskvy journalist Alexander Plyushchev and Mediazona editor-in-chief Sergey Smirnov.
“At half past six in the morning two plain-clothes officers with police I.D. arrived at my registered address. They told my mother-in-law that they wanted “to talk prophylactically” and attributed the early visit to the fact that they wanted to catch me lest I suddenly leave for work. Having achieved nothing, since I wasn’t there and my mother-in-law didn’t know my whereabouts, they left,” Plyushchev wrote on Telegram.
Later, Smirnov reported that he was handed a warning when he went to a clinic to pick up medication for his mother. “They traced [me] through billing, amazing,” he said.
Warnings were also issued to a relative of the chief editor of the educational project Arzamas and to Meduza podcast host Alexander Borzenko.
Several opposition politicians also reported visits from police officers, including Moscow municipal deputies Yulia Galyamina and Konstantin Yankauskas, former Liberterian Party leader Sergey Boyko, and the leader of the unofficial Party of Changes, Dmitry Gudkov.
Moscow police also visited the home of Alexey Polikhovich, one of the defendants convicted in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square case. In Novokuznetsk (a city in southwestern Siberia), officers called on people subscribed to a VKontakte group dedicated to the rally in support of Navalny. Law enforcement also tried to issue warnings to activists in Tver, Kurgan, Oryol, and Dagestan.
In Moscow, Kostroma, St. Petersburg, Chelyabinsk, Veliky Novgorod, and other cities, students at schools, colleges, and universities were warned that taking part in the rallies is prohibited. Yaroslavl State University threatened to put students on a “state institutions’ blacklist,” and Bashkir State University announced that there would be classes on Saturday, January 23. The university attributed this decision to the “non-fulfilment of curriculum,” adding that “attendance is strictly compulsory for all staff members and students.”
Rallies opposing Alexey Navalny’s detention are set to take place in cities across Russia on Saturday, January 23; the protest organizers haven’t sought permission from the authorities to hold the demonstrations. Navalny and his team announced the protests immediately after a judge remanded the opposition figure in custody for 30 days, pending a trial on revoking his probation and incarcerating him under a reinstated sentence in the Yves Rocher case.
A number of well-known public figures have spoken out in support of Navalny including journalist and YouTuber Yury Dud, musician Noize MC, economist Sergey Guriev, and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
In the lead-up to Saturday’s protests, Navalny’s team offices, Anti-Corruption Foundation, and associates have been targeted by an influx of suspicious followers on social media (as have a number of independent media outlets). Meanwhile, Russia’s state censor, Roskomnadzor, has ordered TikTok and VKontakte to remove content inciting underage users to participate in illegal protests. The next day, the Russian Attorney General’s Office ordered Roskomnadzor to block access to websites containing calls to take part in protests in support of Navalny.
In turn, police officials have warned about a possible repeat of the “Belarusian scenario” in Russia. “Based on the example of proven political strategies in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, we can’t exclude the possibility of a similar swing in the situation in our country,” said the Interior Ministry’s First Deputy Head, Alexander Gorovoy.
Police officials also underscored that they have the right — even before the protests — to bring administrative charges against those inciting demonstrations. And law enforcement have already begun to dole out fines over the planned protests in support of Navalny: Olga Kartavtseva, the coordinator of Team Navalny’s Omsk office, was fined 20,000 rubles (about $270) for organizing a march for this upcoming Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Investigative Committee branch in Tatarstan has launched a criminal investigation into information published on social media “calling for riots on January 23.” According to investigators, the person who posted this information included “corresponding instructions on antisocial behavior.” If charged, the unidentified suspect could face up to two years in prison. This is the first known criminal case opened over the upcoming protests opposing Navalny’s detention.
Update. On Thursday evening, Moscow police arrested Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh and FBK employee Georgy Alburov.
Translated and updated by Eilish Hart