Police in Moscow arrested hundreds over the weekend as the Kremlin continued its crackdown on recent protests calling for free elections in the city. At least 828 people were arrested according to independent monitoring group OVD-info. Russian police presented the lower figure of 600 arrests, with 1,500 protestors in attendance, a number disputed in turn by activists, who claim up to 10,000 took to the streets.
The rally had been banned by Russian authorities, in a move to quell the ongoing protest movement that has seen tens of thousands take part over the past three weeks. Anger is centred on the authorities’ decision to bar opposition candidates from participating in September’s elections to the city authority – despite their attainment of the minimum 5,000 signatures needed to run.
Officials claim that many signatures were invalid, disqualifying the candidates from standing for election. Yet protestors remain unconvinced; they say the exclusion of opposition candidates is a deliberate, political suspension of democracy. 22 year-old Varvara told AFP news agency that the Kremlin wished to instil an atmosphere of “total control.” With no avenue for opposition available at the ballot box, it is the streets of Moscow itself that people have been forced to turn to.
Yet the government has been fierce in its response to opposition of this form. Footage widely available on social media shows unarmed protestors being beaten by Russian riot police. Detainees at one police station told OVD-info that after refusing to allow their fingerprints to be taken they were threatened with having their fingers “cut off.”
The brutal response has been directed not just at civilian protestors but at opposition candidates too. Lyubov Sobol, the only remaining candidate wishing to stand in the September elections not currently in jail was arrested on her way to the protest, dragged from the street outside her campaign headquarters into a waiting bus. And authorities have launched a criminal investigation into the protests. A number of individuals have been arrested on charges of causing “mass unrest,” carrying a potential prison-term of 15 years.
The tactics of oppression and intimidation seem clear. The authorities are determined to derail the nascent protest movement before it can grow any further, and they have selected these as their tools for doing so. This may backfire. Many took to the streets in response to what they saw as excessive violence from Russian police during prior weeks’ protests. “We’re all against violence, but we have our right to protest, to give voice to our opinion about what’s happening in this country,” said 33-year-old Sergey Kasatkin. “I think [the authorities] overreacted and this is our response.” A father attending the protest with his two daughters echoed this sentiment, “it is important to show we are not afraid.”
Sobol hopes this is a rallying cry that will fuel the movement going forward, “ [the authorities] are doing everything they can to try to intimidate the opposition … that is why it is important to come out today to show that Muscovites are not afraid of provocation and they are ready to continue to stand up for their rights.”
Whether this will be the case remains to be seen, and conversely some signs point towards the authorities’ tactics as being successful – attendance at the most recent protest was significantly smaller than the preceding week’s. If the Russian government is to be prevented from getting away with its flagrant violation of its people’s democratic rights, their resolve must remain, and the mass movement be continued. In the face of such stiff state intimidation, this may be easier said than done.