“The reason for all this is the hate and fear of one man living in a bunker,” Alexey Navalny said in his final statement in court yesterday, making a jocular reference to president Vladimir Putin. “I mortally offended him by simply surviving the attempt to kill me, which was done on his orders.”
But what comes next? And what are the prospects of protest mobilisation given that Navalny, their principal public coordinator, is now in prison?
The opposition politician, now headed to prison for two-and-a-half years, also used his platform in the dock to look forward, mentioning his hope that his imprisonment “would not be taken by people as a signal that they should be afraid”.
On the evidence of the past few weeks, it looks as though his wish may be granted. Many observers (and participants) have been impressed by the scale of the protest mobilisation in Russia since Navalny’s return and arrest on 17 January, with people out in the streets in over 100 Russian cities and towns.
The Moscow city court judge handed down its sentence after a tense day which saw, according to independent monitoring organisation OVD-Info, over 1,400 people detained outside the building and the protests that followed throughout the day.
Whether the protests will lead to real change, or just fizzle out, depends on far more than what Alexey Navalny does, or has done to him. As ever, the nuts and bolts of organising will be crucial, as will the direction of the overall ‘protest mood’.
Also critical, though, will be the relation between Navalny’s organisation, its supporters and the broader mass of disaffected Russian citizens who are inclined to protest – and what they can all do, beyond street demonstrations, to make themselves heard.
In January, Navalny returned to Russia after surviving a deadly poisioning attempt. Upon arrival, he was arrested, and his team released a two-hour video investigation into a secret palace on Russia’s Black Sea which, he alleges, was gifted to president Vladimir Putin as a bribe by oligarchs. Navalny then called for two nationwide protests one week apart in Russia, which have seen thousands of people detained
This new cycle has ended a more subdued – although far from silent – time of protest in the country: the global pandemic and its restrictions, as well as draconian measures by law enforcement, have been less conducive to public actions over the past year.
But it’s not all about Navalny. Aside from the injustice of his return to prison in what many see as stage-managed court proceedings, evidence and footage of cruel treatment, force and violence against people at protests by Russian law enforcement has likely contributed to the resolve of current and potential protesters.