Russia is engulfed in new demonstrations against Vladimir Putin’s government. Demonstrations with a democratic content, against the arrest of an opposition leader, Alexey Navalny and against corruption. The fact that they have spread to the interior of the country, to less privileged regions than the capital Moscow, reflects elements of deep social dissatisfaction accumulated over the years in broad sectors. And possibly, in a still embryonic way, elements of crisis in the political regime.
By: POI – Russia
Alexey Navalny is the organiser of the Anti-Corruption Fund. A kind of NGO that carries out investigations into corruption in the upper echelons of the state. For several years he has been denouncing a series of scandals.
In the middle of last year, Navalny was poisoned with the toxic agent Novichok, a chemical weapon developed by the ex-USSR/Russia. It is perhaps the most potent neurological agent in the world. Navalny was transferred in a coma to a German hospital and survived the attack. A journalistic investigation carried out jointly by The Insider, Bellingcat, CNN and Der Spiegel showed that 8 agents of the FSB (Federal Security Service, the Russian secret service, formerly KGB) had flown with him to the city where he was poisoned, following exactly the same route. All 8 agents had a background in chemistry or medicine. The investigation also showed that before the attack they had called several times the research centre that developed Novichok and, as soon as it was clear that the attack had failed and that Navalny had survived, they called the same research centre again. It was also proven that these same agents had been tracking Navalny’s travels over the past three years, with suspicions of other attempts to poison Navalny and his wife and of murdering other oppositionists or journalists.
The most spectacular twist was that Navalny called one of these agents, playing his superior, in which he confirmed his participation in the failed poisoning attempt, in a video that went viral in Russia. The use of Novichok could not be authorised without the approval of the FSB director, who in turn could not act in such a way without Putin’s approval. In other words, everything indicates that Putin is the mastermind of the crime. The Putin government, of course, denies any accusation and has even refused to open an investigation into the case, simply denying the poisoning. The German hospital which treated Navalny has confirmed it, as have laboratories in Germany, Sweden and France. Even the Russian hospital that treated Navalny before he was sent to Germany cited poisoning by a neurological agent in a statement, but soon it was withdrawn.
The journalistic investigation of the poisoning, as well as the video of the telephone conversation with the FSB agent who admitted the poisoning, were followed by millions of people in Russia. Soon after, Navalny published the results of a major investigation into a bribery scheme for the construction of a luxurious palace for Putin on the shores of the Black Sea, built by big contractor companies owned by Russian oligarchs. The investigation was presented in a two-hour video, which has had more than 100 million views in a country of 140 million people. The Palace, treated as “the world’s largest bribe,” draws attention for its ostentatious luxury, sofas worth almost $100,000, water disco, striptease lanes, theatre, cinema, underground hockey rink, wine cellars, room for sanitising eggs (!) or $1,000 toilet brushes, which eventually became one of the symbols of the protests. Putin had to go public to deny that the palace is his, despite the fact that its construction was coordinated by the Presidential Administration apparatus and that the companies that participated in its construction referred to it as “the president’s palace.”
Upon returning to Russia, Navalny was immediately arrested at the airport, even before passing passport control. He was charged with breaking the conditions of his sentence to house arrest, while in a coma or under treatment in Germany. Since then he has been in prison. His previous conviction is obscure, Navalny claims it was fabricated to prevent him from participating in past presidential elections.
Navalny’s arrest sets off a wave of demonstrations across the country
A demonstration demanding the release of Navalny and all political prisoners was held on Saturday 23 January. It was preceded by much discussion on social media, mainly on TikTok, an app popular with student youth. This fact drew the attention of state security bodies. So, the Ministry of Education organised a campaign, where teachers in schools explained to the students it was not right to take part in demonstrations against our beloved president, as well as writing to parents to keep their children at home. The media constantly reported that the demonstration was illegal and that it would be harshly repressed. They said it was a provocation by the American secret services.
The campaign of misinformation and fear didn’t stop tens of thousands of demonstrators in 140 cities. In Moscow, about 15-20 thousand people went to the biggest demonstration. The repression was harsh, more than 1,500 protesters were arrested in Moscow, and thousands more in other regions. Another demonstration was called for Sunday, the 31st. This time on Lubyanka Square, Moscow, outside the FSB central headquarters, an unacceptable audacity for the government. It closed the city centre with police cordons, OMON shock troops, 10 subway stations were closed, all access to the city centre was interrupted, buses and cars were prevented from reaching the centre. The city centre was actually put in a state of siege, something unheard of in the capital. But this did not discourage the demonstrators, who organised columns of a few hundred to a few thousand people that kept moving around the city, bypassing the police cordon, being dispersed by the police and then reuniting later. This lasted for many hours and in fact kept the city centre and all transport closed and was an event of great repercussion. Again, the struggle spread to many cities in the interior. The repression was even greater than on the 23rd. On Tuesday, February 2, a new demonstration took place, this time outside the Court where Navalny was to be tried. The slogans most heard in the demonstrations were: Release Navalny! Freedom for all political prisoners! Putin, thief! Down with the Tzar! For a Russia without Putin! Again, the OMON riot police closed down the centre of Moscow and the demonstration was massively repressed.
The regime reacts harshly
More than 10,000 activists (including high-school students) were arrested during three days of struggle. The detention centres were crowded, without conditions to receive so many detainees, who had to sleep in overcrowded cells, without beds, mattresses, blankets or even heating. Often without access to the bathroom for long hours and even without water. Many had to spend the night locked in police vans. There were riots, protests and hunger strikes inside the detention centres, usually meant for illegal immigrants. In the end, Navalny was sentenced to about three years in prison.
Putin tries to use massive repression against anyone who opposes his regime, just as his puppet Lukashenko in Belarus has been doing for several months against the huge revolutionary wave there. This is the essence of Putin’s ultra-reactionary regime, based on the FSB, OMON and the armed forces, absolutely incompatible with democratic rights. While Putin still retained people’s support, he could cover himself with a democratic mask. The most important fact of reality in Russia today is that possibly this mask has fallen. Putin is already seen, at least by a considerable portion, as autocratic, repressive, anti-democratic, corrupt and complicit with Russian oligarchs. Even by official polls, which do not deserve the slightest credibility, the government’s popularity is falling, and popular dissatisfaction is rising.
It is not only for Navalny but against poverty, unemployment, and social crisis
It is too early to assess the full importance of these struggles. But it is clear that it is no longer a movement restricted to Navalny’s supporters. Many people took to the streets not because they agree with Navalny or with his proposals but against the imprisonment of those who disagree with the government’s discourse and those who have the courage to denounce it. Navalny in this sense plays the role of triggering a profound process that has been building up for some time in broad layers. In the many interviews carried out in the streets, people justified their participation by being fed up with corruption, high prices and low wages, layoffs, lack of policy for those affected by the pandemic, lack of vaccines in the countryside where the queues last for weeks, while in Moscow they advertise that there are vaccines left over, vaccinating people without queues in the city’s malls. And many highlighted that they were not supporters of Navalny but were against his arrest.
In a country the size of Russia, a few tens of thousands of protesters may not seem a major event to an outsider. But those who were there felt the energy, the degree of mobilisation, combativeness and self-initiative, they realised that it was not “more of the same.” The differential of this process of struggles in relation to the 2012 demonstrations is that it spread to all regions, being proportionally stronger in the inner cities than in the privileged and traditionally oppositionist Moscow. It also differs from 2012 in that the demonstrations now enjoy massive, but still dispersed, support in broad sectors of the population. In cities where demonstrations were attended by 500 protesters, for example, their videos were followed online by tens of thousands, and nationwide by millions. Even those who did not take to the streets, for fear of harsh repression, followed the events with great interest. There are signs of sympathy in the working class. The social composition of the demonstrations seemed more plebeian than the previous ones, half of the participants answered, in surveys carried out on the spot, that they were taking part in a demonstration for the first time in their lives. In the crowd, there were many women and many young people. The majority age group was between 20 and 45 years old.
Just as Putin’s mask is falling, so is the mask of the official “opposition,” which condemned Navalny for his “anti-state” activity. This is what the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation) leadership, well known for its pro-Putin stance, said, which generated elements of crisis in its own apparatus, with some local organisations of the inner cities taking part in the demonstrations, publicly against their leadership. This, in turn, called into question Navalny’s own main political tactic, the so-called “smart voting,” a kind of tactical voting intended to consolidate the votes of the best placed “opposition” candidate in each region, whoever they are, against the candidates of Putin’s party. Thus, Navalny’s support helped to elect many representatives from the CPRF and other parties like the Liberal Democrats and Fair Russia, who now approve of Navalny’s arrest and stand in solidarity with Putin. As we had been criticising for some time, a “smart voting” not that smart…
It is no accident that the CPRF (and Stalinists all over the world) defend Putin. The mixture of Russian chauvinism, the exaltation of the “Soviet empire” and even of the figure of Stalin, as a symbol of supposed patriotism and strong will, with an anti-western speech (while actually opening the entire economy of the country to European and American capital) suits the Stalinists very well. As a macabre corollary, we cite the fact that in the court that condemned Navalny there was a portrait of Yagoda on the wall, the head of the NKVD (KGB) who, together with Stalin, engineered the first Moscow Trial (that of Zinoviev and Kamenev) against the Bolshevik leaders who were then confronting Stalinism. Not by chance, we could see banners saying “We do not want to go back to 1937,” the year of the Stalinist Great Terror, at the demonstrations.
The international scope of the struggle
The protests in Russia are still of great importance because they take place in the aftermath of the recent revolutions in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. It is too early to forecast that these scenarios will be repeated in the short term in Russia, but the processes are fed back, with many demonstrators in Russia carrying the white/red/white flag, the symbol of the Belarusian revolution, and with a wave of sympathy for the Russian demonstrators in Belarus.
The Putin regime fulfils the role of a bastion of counter-revolution in the region, having drowned the Syrian revolution in blood and invaded Ukraine, putting it into a civil war, as well as having annexed Crimea, in a policy to defeat its 2014 revolution. It has put troops on standby to support the Lukashenko dictatorship in Belarus, as well as supporting it financially and logistically against the Belarusian revolution. It supports and sends weapons to the Egyptian dictatorship which is a brutally repressive regime, also drowning in blood the revolution that sparked a decade ago. It violently represses all the processes of the struggle for independence in the Caucasus region. It supports all the dictatorships in the former Soviet republics, in Europe, in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. It supports everything that is worst in the world, like the far-right European parties. The current struggle against the regime weakens its reactionary role in all these spheres. The defeat of Putin would have great repercussions from the point of view of the class struggle in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
In addition to internal problems, Putin now has to deal with the risk of a new wave of sanctions by the European and American governments, that are demanding the release of Navalny and other political prisoners and an end to the repression of demonstrations. So far, these governments have not gone beyond threats, because it is no secret that the so-called Western democracies are more interested in their good businesses with Putin’s regime (and Lukashenko’s) than in real democratic rights. Nothing could be more hypocritical than the position of Angela Merkel, who, under pressure from public opinion, stands up for the release of the political prisoners but refuses to stop the Nord Stream 2 project (a natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany under the Baltic sea, without crossing Ukraine), a measure that would have a heavy persuasive effect on Putin and the Russian bourgeoisie. This makes it all the more important to hold demonstrations across Europe for the immediate release of all political prisoners and an end to repression, demanding tough actions against Putin from European governments.
Who is Alexey Navalny?
Navalny has become, in a sense, the face of the opposition to the Putin regime, not to be confused with the fake “accepted opposition” which is part of the Putin regime, which may criticise Putin in retail but supports him in wholesale. Navalny faces with courage and defiance, taking risks, a harsh, oppressive, violent regime which will stop at nothing to silence its opponents. With his articles, investigations, denunciations and videos he inspires hundreds of thousands of people to fight Putin’s autocracy. In this sense, he deserves our respect and solidarity. But what is needed in Russia is not to replace one “charismatic leader” with another. One cannot close one’s eyes to Navalny’s political trajectory, his class character and his clear limitations.
Navalny comes from a right-wing populist trajectory, having started his career in a liberal opposition party, the Yabloko, from which he was expelled for his flirtations with xenophobic nationalism, against immigrants, having even taken part in the xenophobic “Russian March.” After that, Navalny a more “sympathetic” behaviour over the years, exposing the poverty in the countryside, defending social policies, and even against the pensions reform, flirting with leftist stances. He has not lost his right-wing nationalist streak, which is explicit in the fact that he has never opposed the annexation of Crimea. He defends a bourgeois liberal and privatising programme for the Russian economy, besides maintaining important relations with Western powers that, it is no coincidence, defend him. It is striking that in all his years of denouncing corruption in the upper echelons of the government, he has never denounced the role of European and American multinationals in this corruption. In economic issues, he is no different from Putin.
But none of this changes the fact that the centre of Navalny’s activity today is exposing the Putin regime and fighting it. And truth be told, quite courageously, which is why he was poisoned and is in prison. In this sense, every worker, every citizen defending democratic rights, every political movement not committed to Putin’s repressive, corrupt and oligarchic regime, regardless of how they view the political figure of Navalny, must demand his release and of all political prisoners.
It is not easy to determine the next steps in this struggle. The recent Belarusian experience shows that demonstrations every weekend may not be enough to defeat such a tough regime, based on the forces of repression, secret services and the armed forces. In Russia, this task is made even more difficult because Putin, with his xenophobic, chauvinistic and nationalist speech, still maintains relative popular support, unlike Lukashenko. Moreover, this kind of demonstrations can be an easy target for repression. We repeat, 10,000 demonstrators were arrested in 10 days. Alternatives do need to be considered. But unfortunately, as we were closing this article, Navalny’s HQ was deciding on a policy that in our opinion is disastrous. They have postponed all the rallies and demonstrations until spring-summer to concentrate on preparing for the September elections to the State Duma, when, once again, they will use the tactic of “smart voting,” that is, to call the vote for any party that claims to be opposition, while the majority of these forces support the arrest of Navalny and sustain the Putin regime, even if occasionally criticising him…
It is a mistaken policy, which makes the movement hostage to elections inside Putin’s regime, that is, controlled by him. If in Belarus the electoral victory of the opposition candidate Tikhanovskaya, failed to get Lukashenko out of power, it’s much more probable it will fail in Russia. We call on Navalny’s HQ to abandon this policy of “smart voting,” the uselessness of which reality itself has shown. Enough of nurturing illusions that the FSB regime can “renew” itself and hand over power democratically via elections. On the contrary, we call Navalniy’s HQ to say clearly that the FSB and OMON must be dissolved, because they are machinery for repressing any dissent, for political repression, something that should not exist in a democratic Russia. They are bodies which have nothing in common with “the defence of citizens.” One should take in this respect the example of the Ukrainian Revolution, which dissolved the political police, the Berkut.
As the best example of the Belarusian Revolution – the entrance of the working class into the process of struggle which, at least for a period, converted the factories of the country into the main bastion of the struggle against the regime – should be taken. The working class as such is still absent from the Russian political scene, fragmented, with a strong presence of immigrants without rights from different countries, despite signs of dissatisfaction and sympathy with the current movement. To attract them, social demands must be incorporated, concerning famine, unemployment, wages, pensions, public health, rights for immigrants. We call on Navalny’s HQ to take up these banners and propagandise them among the working class, native and immigrant. These social issues must be linked to the questions of corruption and repression of the regime, in a great campaign to win over wider sectors of the population to oppose Putin. And so, if conditions are favourable, demonstrations should be built, as large as possible, with a timetable for starting and ending, to at least reduce the number of arrested, since the majority of the arrests take place at the end of the demonstrations when a good number have already left.
But since we consider it unlikely that Navalny’s HQ will assume this policy, it is essential to build a new leadership for this process of struggles, capable of combining total unity of action with the liberals of Navalny against the Putin-FSB regime, with total class independence to raise social demands and organise the working class. The task of every honest anti-Putin activist in the country is to organise and link up as closely as possible with the Russian working class, patiently explaining how Putin is the government of the oligarchs, of the FSB, which oppresses other peoples inside and outside Russia, while condemning the Russians themselves to poverty, and in this framework to build a leadership/organisation up to this immense historical task – of defeating Putin and his regime!
- Demand the immediate release of Navalny and all political prisoners!
- Demand the full right to organisation and demonstration!
- Down with repression! Dissolution of OMON and FSB!
- Enough of this oligarchic and repressive Putin government! For an emergency social plan to create jobs, increase wages and pensions. A real plan of mass vaccination, not just TV propaganda. Emergency support for all families affected by the epidemic, minimum income guaranteed by the state. Job stability and rehiring of all those fired during the epidemic, including immigrants. The health safety of workers must be guaranteed in all companies. Those that can’t do it must have their operations interrupted, without loss of wages or dismissal. The oligarchs must pay the bill, establishing progressive taxes for big fortunes and the expropriation and nationalisation of the fundamental and strategic economic sectors.