MOSCOW - Several thousand people braved sub-zero temperatures in cities across Russia to protest what they say is a lack of competition ahead of March presidential elections all but guaranteed to extend Vladimir Putin’s grip on power through 2024.
The rallies were part of a nationwide “Voters Strike” called by opposition leader and erstwhile presidential candidate Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who has been blocked from participating in the elections over legal problems widely seen as manufactured to keep him out of the race.
“We demand a real contest. Even many supporters of Putin say ‘why wouldn’t he participate in a competitive election?’” said Vladimir Milov, a Navalny campaign adviser, in an interview with VOA at the Moscow rally.
“They believe Putin can beat Navalny, and we believe Navalny can beat Putin,” he added.
“That’s what elections are all about.”
Yet Sunday’s protests reflected a realization among Navalny’s camp that such a direct contest will not take place.
Watch Sunday's Protests
Barred from participating by Russia’s courts and state election commission, Navalny’s campaign has shifted to calls to boycott the election — arguing low voter turnout nationwide will take the shine off a Putin victory and high voter approval ratings that, they argue, are inflated by state manipulation.
“We are not going to take part in this election,” said Vladislav Sovostin, a small business owner, as the crowd shouted “Strike! Strike!” “Boycott!” and “These Aren’t Elections!”
“We are going to monitor the vote and not allow them to falsify the election for Putin,” he added.
Organizers argued that protests took place in over 100 cities across the country — with several approved in advance by authorities. Notable exceptions were Russia’s two main cities — Moscow and St. Petersburg — where police and interior ministry troop presence were heavy and authorities threatened arrests.
OVD-Info, a civic police monitoring group, reported 340 people had been detained nationwide.
Many of those included Navalny surrogates and campaign volunteers in cities such as Tomsk, a Siberian university town where the local independent TV-2 channel reported 10 arrests.
In Moscow, police also stormed Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, where an online video feed of the day’s events was shut down after police broke through office doors with a chainsaw.
Navalny, too, had little opportunity to take part in the event he organized.
Video published online showed police roughly dragging him into a police van almost as soon as he arrived on Moscow’s central Tverskaya Street.
“I’ve been detained. That doesn’t matter,” he posted minutes later on Twitter. “Come to Tverskaya. You’re not coming out for me, but for yourself and your future.”
Once again, the faces of younger Russians — many in their teens and early 20s who have grown up under Putin’s rule — were prominent at rallies across the country.
“The authorities are used to thinking that Russians will just sit quietly and wait for change. Well, our generation won’t wait. We want a better life,” says Ivan Savin, a high school student who attended the rally.
He also admitted to telling his parents he was “out with friends” for the day rather than out protesting the Russian president.
“Only because they’ll worry and think I’ll get arrested.”
His classmate, Valerie Koltsov, added that other friends felt the same.
“I know a lot of people who don’t come because it really does scare them. They think they’ll get fined for not doing what the government tells them.”
Indeed, turnout was smaller than previous Navalny-led protests from the past year, when tens of thousands of Russians came out to protest alleged corruption at the highest levels of government.
Few doubt that Navalny’s message — fueled by an effective social media campaign — has connected well beyond Moscow and into the regions.
But Sunday’s smaller numbers, despite temperatures as low as -40C in Siberia, were all but certain to fuel debate in opposition circles over the wisdom of Navalny’s call for a nationwide boycott of the vote.
The tactic, critics point out, demands widespread participation or risks simply increasing Putin’s margin of victory.
Ksenia Sobchak, a television star-turned-opposition figure whose own presidential bid has been tacitly endorsed by the Kremlin, is among those calling on anti-Putin forces to register their dissatisfaction by supporting her “Against All” candidacy at the ballot box rather than on the streets.
Navalny’s supporters have largely derided Sobchak’s campaign as a Kremlin ploy to legitimize the vote.
Yet Ludmilla Sidodova, a pensioner at the Moscow rally who was a veteran of the massive pro-democratic movement of the late-Soviet period, argued it would simply take a wider movement if Russians hoped to evoke real change.
She was among hundreds of thousands who once had demanded change, and suggested a new generation could learn from that history.
“I wish they’d understand that we did what we could. Maybe it wasn’t always enough. But now it depends on them,” Sidodova said. “Whatever life they decide they want is the life they’ll have.”