The celebration of Russia Day – Russia’s national holiday – was gatecrashed today by a predictable though unwelcome presence: the ‘non-system’ opposition leader and self-styled ‘anti-corruption’ blogger Alexey Navalny.
Navalny and the ‘non-system’ opposition he pretends to lead decided – as is their right – to hold protests on Russia Day. The were given a legal venue for their protest in Moscow, which was Sakharov Avenue in central Moscow, scene of a big opposition protest in December 2011.
By no stretch of the imagination is Sakharov Avenue an unsuitable or inappropriate venue for a protest of this nature, and no one is saying that it was.
At the very last moment Navalny however decided to switch the venue to Tverskaya – Moscow’s main street – knowing perfectly well that this venue had been given over on the same day to celebrations of Russia Day by ordinary people and their families.
Navalny’s pretext for the last minute switch of venue were a lack of stage and audio systems at Sakharov Avenue.
No one takes that pretext seriously, and when some 1,800 ‘non-system’ protesters nonetheless turned up at the venue, disregarding Navalny’s last minute instructions, it seems they found the stage and audio systems in perfect working order.
The real reason for Navalny’s switch of venue is not difficult to gauge.
By general agreement 1,800 ‘non-system’ protesters turned up at the original venue on Sakharov Avenue whilst a further 5,000 ‘non-system’ protesters – many of them apparently teenagers – heeded Navalny’s call and came to Tverskaya. That makes for a total of just under 7,000 ‘non-system’ protesters in Moscow on Russia Day.
A crowd of 7,000 or so ‘non-system’ protesters peacefully protesting in Sakharov Avenue would not appear very impressive, particularly on a day when over a quarter of a million Muscovites were enjoying Russia Day celebrations across the city. Rather than disappoint his followers and deprive the Western media of its story Navalny therefore switched the venue at the last moment to a place – Tverskaya – where he knew there would be trouble, and therefore the greatest possible amount of publicity both for the protest and himself.
Along the way Navalny (of course) got himself arrested – as was his intention – which meant that he was not physically present either in Sakharov Avenue or in Tverskaya.
Around 150-200 other people also got arrested on Tverskaya, providing Navalny and his foreign sponsors with more pictures to spread on social media and in the Western media.
All this was wholly predictable, but it leads to three points:
(1) Moscow was not the only venue for a ‘non-system’ opposition protest on Russia Day. Protests were also held in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk and in a number of other places. The total number of people who turned up to all these protests put together may have been around 15,000, with about half of them protesting in Moscow.
That highlights the minimal level of support across Russia for the ‘non-system’ opposition, which the antics on Tverskaya were of course intended to obscure.
I would add that the ‘non-system’ opposition in Russia despite or perhaps because of its tiny size is riven with factions, with Navalny’s self-declared leadership being far from uncontested. The fact that 1,800 ‘non-system’ protesters ignored Navalny’s call and turned up to the original venue in Sakharov Avenue points to a split.
(2) Though the events in Tverskaya gained for Navalny the publicity he craves, and provided the Western media with the story it wants, politically speaking it is difficult to imagine a more counter-productive strategy than the one of disrupting a public party on a national holiday.
Many people in Moscow who had come to Tverskaya to enjoy themselves must have been angered at this spoiling of their fun.
RT’s correspondent at the scene Murad Gazdiev claimed that families and children had to flee a historical fair when one of the entrances was blockaded by protesters
Families with children now fleeing historical fair in Moscow, after opposition protesters blockaded one of the enterances to the fair pic.twitter.com/DNN15xjKEd
— Murad Gazdiev (@MuradGazdiev) June 12, 2017
Whilst I do not know whether or not this was so, it is overwhelmingly like that some people with young children would have been put off staying at the celebrations on Tverskaya by the sudden appearance of chanting protesters followed by riot police.
Needless to say that is not going to win them over to Navalny or his cause.
(3) The reality is that Navalny long ago lost interest in trying to win over ordinary Russians. His actions – of which those on Russia Day are a typical example – have long since been more directed at impressing the Western media and his foreign sponsors than Russians back home.
The Western media and Navalny’s sponsors should however consider carefully the practical effect of what that means.
The sort of serial law breaking that Navalny now routinely engages in with the active encouragement of the Western media and his foreign sponsors involves breaches of public order offences, which by definition creates conditions for violence.
It is entirely because of the professionalism of the Moscow police that nothing serious has so far happened. It is however tempting fate to suppose that that will always be so. Sooner or later some ugly incident is bound to occur, which could involve someone suffering serious injury.
Though I would prefer not to think so, that of course may be the plan.
If so then those encouraging this sort of activity are not only behaving completely irresponsibly, but also politically extremely foolishly, since people in Russia will have no difficulty figuring out who is to blame if anything really bad happens.