The Bolotnaya Square Case 2.0: Top Ten Takeaways
By Alexander Morozov
The political crisis in Moscow is unraveling at a dizzying speed, and it is doing so along the worst possible scenario.
It had been anticipated that the Mayor’s Office would adopt a measured, technical approach to solving its elections “challenges”: disqualify some of independent candidates by claiming their voters’ pre-registration signatures are invalid; remove other candidates on procedural irregularities later in the game; and the remaining candidates will just wash away on their own, unable to compete with the Kremlin’s candidates’ government financial backing.
We will never know whether this approach had ever even been considered.
Instead, the Moscow Election Commission skipped all the expected niceties and invalidated the preregistration signatures of all major independent candidate right of the bat, in a manner unabashed, utterly outrageous and blatantly illegal. This was a powerful message from the Kremlin and the Mayor’s Office to Russia’s civil society – the political challenge posed by independent candidates will be neutralized by force.
While the Chair of the Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova and the Chairman of the Presidential Human Rights Council Mikhail Fedotov are lying low, Putin’s punitive arms – the Investigative Committee and the FSB are going full throttle. The Kremlin’s spokesmen have already asserted that independent candidates are “agents of foreign-sponsored Orange Revolution”. Home searches have commenced. Having carried out night raids on homes of independent candidates and their relatives, as well as on party headquarters and field offices, the siloviki leadership are now busy fabricating “coup collusion” cases – they are alleging that the July 27 protest participants (who came out to streets to protest illegal removal of independent candidates from the race) were really planning to storm and take over the Mayor’s Office building and the Moscow Election Committee office.
This time, the authorities have jailed not only Alexei Navalny and his associates, as they had done many times before, but even Vladimir Milov, who did not participate in the July 27 protest, and instead was leading live coverage of it on his YouTube channel. The police showed up even at the Dozhd TV bureau (previously assumed as enjoying a somewhat protected semi-sanctioned status among opposition outlets). Jail terms served by Navalny, Yashin, Galyamina, Gudkov, Yanauskas and others range from 10 to 30 days.
The Libertarian Party was in discussions with the Mayor’s Office for organizing a protest on July 3. When Mikhail Svetlov, who was conducting negotiations, refused the Mayor’s Office’s proposal to hold the protest at the Sakharov’s Prospect, he was arrested right as he was exiting the meeting, and locked up for a 30-day term.
So what we have looming ahead of us, is the second “unsanctioned” protest, and with it, mass repressions of pro-democracy Russians – the Bolotnaya Square 2.0.
To all involved, it is abundantly clear that the Kremlin and the Mayor’s Office are engaged in an unfathomable act of depravity – they are fully aware that there were absolutely no mobilized groups or organizations among the protestors on July 27 and that there were no plans to storm government buildings or even resist law enforcement representatives. Muscovites have learned through bitter experience of the Bolotnaya Square persecution that every instance of resistance is recorded by numerous cameras from many angles. They also know that they are not a match for the army of riot police deployed to squash their protests. But more importantly, it is obvious that the most that the milieu of people who came out to protest was capable of was to climb a light post, but nothing even close to engaging in physical confrontation with commando units. The police handling of the protestors was unquestionably excessive in its brutality.
It is pointless to ask “how is that possible?” No, the Kremlin is not ashamed, and no one has the capacity to make it feel even the slightest remorse.
Those who came out to the streets on July 27 have shown remarkable courage. The follow-on protest will require even a higher level of valor. The Investigative Committee has opened several criminal cases against protest participants alleging “violence against the police”, and even some involving Article 211 of the Criminal Code – organization of massive social unrests. In other words, the authorities are fabricating the second Bolotnaya Case, but this time on a much more massive scale. Last time, persecuted were common citizens who accidentally got folded into the mangle of the police provocation. This time, the government is moving with criminal persecution of candidates, and possibly even against the media (Vladimir Milov, Mikhail Svetov, one of the leaders of the Libertarian Party, and Alexandra Perepelova, the Editor in Chief of Dozhd TV did not participate in street protests, they were covering protests from their respective bureaus.
A slew of Kremlin’s talking heads are helpfully suggesting – everything has been organized with foreign money, from one source of financing. Sergey Mironov, a leader of A Just Russia party in Russian Parliament, Sergey Markov, a political scientist and a Kremlin apologist, are already on the record saying just that. And that means that the Investigative Committee will now attempt to link the leaders of groups who were standing up to protect their voting rights with Soros, Khodorkovsky and the U.S. State Department.
It is very likely that despite the government’s attempts to smother protests, sanctioned and non-sanctioned protests will continue. The people are very angry. No matter how massive those protests will be, they still won’t force the government to change its position. But they would be critical to help support candidates already imprisoned and those who are being investigated.
What else can help the pro-democracy forces in Russia?
Candidates’ Solidarity. Those candidates who have managed to register to run, must withdraw their candidacies in solidarity. This gesture alone would, by no means, paralyze the election campaign, but it would send a powerful message to the Russian society.
Publication of the “Sobyanin’s List”. For the moment, public attention is fixed on those who have not been allowed to run. But the media should hit back against the Moscow government and dissect the Sobyanin’s List – those candidates who are being sneaked into the Moscow City Council to take up the spots of the disqualified, arrested and persecuted candidates. Spoilers should be exposed to public scrutiny.
As even pro-Kremlin observers admit, the Mayor’s Office has made a big mistake by disqualifying candidates based on validity of signatures en-masse. This move strikes at the core of the current Kremlin’s political strategy of advancing self-nominated candidates. Now it is impossible to explain how all of the “sanctioned” candidates have managed to collect impeccable signatures (while no one has witnessed their signature collectors or campaign staff), while the true fighters whose volunteers had tirelessly canvassed streets for weeks have “fake” signatures. This is why, these self-nominated candidates and spoilers should be thoroughly and publicly examined.
More Publicity. Russian media outlets have demonstrated an exceptional level of solidarity to stop the government prosecution of the anti-corruption investigative journalist Ivan Golunov in June 2019. The events surrounding July 27 protests feature even more flagrant instances of suppression of freedom of the press, i.e. – raids on live broadcast centers, including even the Dozhd TV station. Dozhd executed an ambitious task – it conducted live coverage from four locales simultaneously. However, it cannot be the only outlet covering follow-on protests on August 3, 10 and so on.
Russia is in the midst of a major political crisis. Key global outlets, such as CNN, ARD and BBC must carry live coverage of these events. We need the support of prominent international journalist associations and media outlets – in form of statements condemning the government strongarm attempts to shut of their Russian colleagues who want to show in detail what is going on.
Kafelnikov et al. Public statement of the famous Russian tennis player Evgeni Kafelnikov commanded much spotlight. We hope that other world-famous Muscovites and Russians join him. Such statements are truly invaluable – they are an immense moral support to those who are fighting for their rights while being under attack of a brutal and cynical government.
Preparedness by International Organizations. Many international organizations have already issued statements on the crisis in Moscow. Some would say that the Kremlin has been ignoring such statements in the recent years, and they would be right. But right now it is hard to predict how many red lines the siloviki leadership is prepared to cross and how many taboos to break in its fight against the Muscovites in the coming weeks. That is why, PACE, OSCE, the European Commission, Reporters Without Borders, the International Helsinki Commission, international election monitoring agencies, European Ministries of Foreign Affairs – they all must be engaged now, at the very first stage. It is irrelevant whether they can or cannot do anything constructive at this point. We already have the precedent of the Bolotnaya Square cases – there will be new political prisoners, there will be political refugees. And they would need support. And that’s why international humanitarian organizations must get ready now.
Who is Peddling the Orange Revolution Ruse? Andrey Pertsev’s exposé of the chaos at the Sobyanin’s campaign headquarters that led to the political crisis during the elections. To save face and cover up the fall outs of this mistake, siloviki are peddling the Orange Revolution story to Putin. Yes, the deal has both the seller and the buyer. A concerted journalistic effort should be made to clarify specifically who is responsible for the political mistake at the Mayor’s Office, how the decision-making process took place, who tasked the head of Moscow Election Commission Gorbunov, and exactly who is trying to sell to Putin the “Orange Revolution” ruse. All involved, including members of prosecution teams, loud-mouthed spokesmen and deputies should be added to the meticulously substantiated List of the Bolotnaya 2.0 Perpetrators.
Lubov Sobol’s Hunger Strike – this is much more important than seems at the first glance. She is ready to continue all the way up to elections, which is almost forty more days.
Political hunger strikes had global resonance not only during the Soviet dissidents’ era (i.e. Mustafa Dzhemilev, Andrey Sakharov), but also later. In 2010, a political hunger-strike of Guillermo Hernandez has led to the release of 52 political prisoners; and in April 2011, the hunger strike of an Indian anti-corruption movement leader Anna Hazare has pushed the government to adopt an anti-corruption legislation. Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike had a strong international resonance.
Therefore, Lubov Sobol’s hunger strike should be viewed in a broader context, without possible reservations against Navalny.
“Wetbacks”. A significant portion of protestors came from other cities – this is what the siloviki have said, and then Sobyanin echoed in his public remarks – and we must take it at face value. The crisis in Moscow, therefore, is the whole Russia protesting, not just Moscow. Not at the very least because the actions of the Mayor’s Office and siloviki is also a model for the Russian regions. Everyone understands that “if it goes in Moscow, it is acceptable in any other major Russian city.” Civil rights are equal for all. And they must be defended regardless of one’s propiska.
No Illusions. Old-timers should patiently explain to the youth that today’s protest are unlikely to bring down the current regime, regardless of how many people come out to the street and how violently they protest. Comparisons to the Kyiv’s Maidan or the Arab revolutions are naïve.
Mass protests become important when there are: 1. A split within the regime, a presence of an influential fraction that is advocating non-violent solutions; or a weak leader whose grip is loosening (as it was the case with the Velvet Revolutions of 1989, during the defeat of the Putsch in Russia, with Ukraine’s Yanukovich in 2014, etc); 2. A number of organizations, not necessarily large, who are pre-mobilized, have experience of violent clashes (sports clubs, veterans groups, soccer fans, right and left radical groups, etc); 3. A fixed undivided attention of the international community on the developments that demoralizes the regime; 4. A critically important sense shared by the protest participants that their actions are far-reaching and supported by other cities; and finally, 5. Frequently decisive is the extraordinary violence by the government that leads to mass mobilization.
When these factors are absent, we have a different historic scenario at play: one million gets together, protests and then goes home at night; or violently clashes with the police, without influencing the overall political situation in the country.
Not a single of the above described factors is present in today’s Russia.
This does not mean that citizens cannot or should not go to the streets en masse to protest government despotism. It only means that the efforts should be focuses not on futile hopes, but on rational defense measures against the Bolotnaya Square 2.0 cases, from a new wave of oppression from the government.
No Resistance [while protesting]. People should be on the lookout for provocations. This means that every participant of protests should denounce attempts at resistance. A winning strategy today is keep one’s arms up, (the way it was done by the protestors at the Bryusovo’s Intersection) and chant “we are unarmed”, and not attempt to put up any resistance.
This Article first appeared in Russian at the Republic.