Supporters of jailed anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny have pulled the trigger on calling for the next big anti-government demonstration, which will be held on April 21, the same day as Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to deliver his State of the nation address to the federation council, the upper house of parliament.
Navalny organised two mass protest in January after he returned to Russia after spending five months in Berlin recuperating from poisoning by Novichok, only to be immediately arrested on his arrival.
The demonstrations saw over 100,000 people turn out at the first on January 17, but second event a week later was less well attended. The organisers didn't call a third due to the falling turnout.
Instead, Team Navalny, the loose organisation that organises Navalny’s public actions and co-ordinates his regional network, set up a website to register an intent to protest and said it would announce the date once the tally got over 500,000.
As of the morning of April 19 the counter stood at 463,565, but despite being short of the 500,000 target the organisers decided to announce the demonstration anyway. Over the preceding weekend Team Navalny reported that the activist was “close to death” and “could die any day.”
Navalny has been on hunger strike for 19 days and demanding that he be allowed to see his own doctor. Navalny has been complaining of poor health since arriving in prison in February.
At the same time, the Federal Security Service (FSB) has declared Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) as an extremist organisation and has threatened any supporters with criminal charges.
FBK on Sunday published a call for people to go to the central squares of cities on April 21.
The decision to hold the rally before the 500,000 signature mark was reached was probably triggered by a combination of Navalny's reported failing health and the Moscow prosecutor's office decision on April 16 to file a lawsuit to recognise the FBK and Navalny's headquarters as extremist organisations.
According to the prosecutor's office, "under the guise of liberal slogans" they undermine the situation in Russia and prepare the ground for changing the constitutional order according to the scenario of the "colour revolution", acting in the interests of unwanted foreign organisations.
The head of Navalny's headquarters, Leonid Volkov, said that the extremist status threatens the FBK with a complete cessation of activities, and the development of the precedent that will result in a complete ban on peaceful political activity in the country in general. Volkov said that the April 21 rally could be the last chance to prevent the country from "plunging into darkness.”
Navalny’s doctors published a letter over the weekend saying he is threatened with cardiac arrest as a result of impaired potassium metabolism. According to Navalny's press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, Navalny's death is could be only a few days away.
Navalny's demand remains the same: permission to see a doctor of his choice. On Sunday, a representative delegation of his doctors who arrived at IK-2 prison facility in Pokrov where Navalny is being held were refused entry.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen added her voice to those calling for Navalny’s release. US Assistant to the President for National Security Jake Sullivan said that "Russia has been warned of the consequences if Navalny dies in prison." According to him, the exchange on the topic is being conducted confidentially through diplomatic channels, but with persons "at the highest levels of Russian power.”
The declaration of the FBK as an extremist organisation is a crushing blow to it and the basis for widespread repression. Volkov writes that FBK employees will face up to 10 years in jail according to Russia’s Criminal Code for organising an extremist association. A simple member of an extremist organisation can receive a prison term of 2 to 6 years, which presumably will apply to those attending a rally organised by FBK.