As Russian President Vladimir Putin was at the lectern giving his annual State of the Nation speech on April 21 crowds began to gather on the central square in Vladivostok to answer the Team Navalny call for nationwide demonstrations.
Putin used the bulk of his speech to announce new spending and investment measures designed to make the lives of ordinary people better, but many Russians have become disillusioned after suffering from at least six years of decaying real incomes and stagnant domestic politics.
But the turnout must have been a disappointment for Team Navalny, the informal group that jailed anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny has put together to organise his movement and protest actions. There cannot be a formal organisation, as the Kremlin has rejected Navalny’s repeated applications to set up a political party.
Despite fears of a brutal response by the police to the illegal rallies, the number of arrests was limited and there were few clashes between the law enforcement offices and the protesters.
OVD Info, that tracks arrests, reported a total of 1,496 arrests across the country in connection with the demonstrations – about a fifth of the number compared to previous rallies. The highest number of arrests were in St Petersburg, which also had the second-highest turnout. However, in Moscow only 26 people were arrested and there was almost no violence, in stark contrast to previous demonstrations.
Participants in Moscow reported surprise as although there was a heavy police presence the police had apparently been given orders not to interfere with the demonstration and simply stood by. What violence there was was reportedly concentrated in St Petersburg where there were violent clashes between OMON riot police and demonstrators. There were also largely isolated incidents of arrests and some fights in the regional cities, but the pictures of beaten and bloodied protester on social media that have marred the previous rallies were missing from this one.
Following two large demonstrations on January 23 and January 31 the Navalny team called off the protests partly due to the extremely cold weather and partly as the numbers at the second one had fallen significantly from the first, and they wanted to stop before the momentum fizzled out.
To keep people engaged and as a way of killing time until the spring arrived, the team set up a website and called on Russians to register their intent to protest, saying they would set a date when the tally reached 500,000.
Team Navalny pulled the trigger early at the start of this week following reports that Navalny's health was deteriorating rapidly and his life was in danger. The fact that Putin would be giving his speech on the same day was an obvious bonus.
However, Team Navalny must be disappointed with the turnout. While tens of thousands did take to the streets in Moscow, for example, the numbers were well below the figure registered on the free.navalny.com site. While the estimates of the total turnout are vague, it seems that the total number of demonstrators was of the order of 50,000, or similar to the January 31 number, but far below the half a million Team Navalny had been hoping for. Even 50,000 is probably a generous estimate according to some commentators.
The best estimates of the crowd size were probably in Moscow, where there are plenty of independent observers and a bevy of social media reports. Even in the capital the estimates vary from between 10,000-15,000 in and around Tverskaya, the main thoroughfare, up to 25,000. But even the biggest estimates are well below the 120,617 that signed up on the Navalny website as intending to participate.
“Lost internet in the Navalny crowds, but turnout was decent near the Kremlin, maybe up to 10,000. Not a record-breaker, but enough to claim a draw and show that a solid core of supporters are willing to come out at nearly any time in his support,” the Guardian’s correspondent Andrew Roth tweeted from the midst of the march.
Navalny’s wife Yulia and his brother Oleg both took to the streets in Moscow in a show of solidarity and were applauded by the crowds.
The story was the same in many regional capitals. St Petersburg saw the second-biggest rally, also with probably a crowd of 10,000, but that well below the 58,354 that had signed up to attend.
Yekaterinburg had a reported 5,000, making it one of the few cities that got close to the number of attendees that had promised to turn out.
But in other regional cities like the warm southern city of Krasnodar the crowds numbered only a few hundred, well off the 8,047 that had registered their intent to protests. The same was true in many other regional cities where crowds were in their hundreds not thousands.
An estimated 4,000 people have gathered in Novosibirsk, the Tayga.info news website reported. Video published to social media shows protesters chanting "Down with the tsar.”
The protest in the Siberian capital of Irkutsk has begun, with an estimated 2,000 people in attendance, Tayga.info reported. Police are letting protesters gather freely, the outlet added.
Between 500-1,000 people have turned up to protest in the Far East port city of Vladivostok, local media reported.
At least eight protesters were detained in the Far East port city of Magadan, according to the Znak.com news website. Footage from other Far East cities including Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky showed heavy police presence and low turnout among Navalny’s supporters, the Moscow Times reported. All the turnout figures were well off the number of names that signed up with an intent to attend.
The low turnout may have been a disappointment for the organisers but for the Kremlin the numbers were big enough to cause concern, as the levels of social discontent are clearly on the rise and the Russian population is slowly becoming more militant. Putin’s speech the same day was largely delivered to the gallery and intended to placate exactly this social protest.
The low turnout is also a function of the divided opinion the public have of the activist. A recent poll from the independent pollster the Levada Center found that only a third of Russians think his jailing was “unjust” and over half approve of the decision. In the political approval ratings Navalny only scores 4%, well behind Putin’s 63% and some ten points behind those of Gennady Zhuganov, the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF).
However, Navalny’s anti-corruption work has had a big impact on Russian society and he has started a national debate on what sort of government Russians want. And his corruption investigations have irreparably tarred many senior political reputations.
Protesters in Russia’s Far East brought a giant yellow duck to the central square and launched it on the Vladivostok city fountain. It’s a reference to Navalny’s investigation that claimed ex-PM Dmitry Medvedev is worth over a billion dollars and has a string of luxury properties, one of which includes a luxury duck house.
One of the consequences of the low turnout is that the authorities are more likely to move ahead with plans to ban Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which it has labelled an “extremist” organisation and accused it of trying to ferment a coloured revolution in Russia. The paperwork has already been submitted to the courts and a formal decision is expected in the next weeks. Once banned, the FBK will be unable to organise any more rallies as attendance will be to support an extremist organisation that carries hefty prison sentences. Many protesters told journalists that they were nervous about arrest and police violence during the April 21 protests but came anyway. If FBK is formally banned many more would-be participants will stay away if more rallies are called.