Committed Citizens Make Up a Movement That Doesn't Depend on Navalny

07/23/2013 11:44 am 11:44:44 | Updated Sep 22, 2013

The sentencing of Alexey Navalny and Petr Ofitserov on July 18 had two immediate and simultaneous effects: in Moscow, a protest of several thousand swarmed a major intersection near the Kremlin, and in Kirov, prosecutors abruptly appealed the defendants' arrest pending their appeal. Could it be that the prosecutors had responded to the demands of the protestors?

In fact, it is unlikely that the protest had much effect on the court case. A few thousand people participated (5,000-8,000 according to reporters on the scene, half that according to the police and 35-40,000 according to some in the opposition). Even at the high end of the estimate is still smaller than the rallies in 2011-2012, and represents a small fraction of Moscow's 12 million people. Moreover, the appeal was announced a half hour after the rally's stated 7:00 PM start time, although people had begun gathering at Manezh around 6:00 PM in smaller numbers (timeline of the protest). Responding to the demands of such a protest falls far outside of the logic of a regime that has in recent months seemed almost determined to become more authoritarian. Instead, intra-elite politics and the greater political objective of a seamless mayoral election in Moscow this September are likely to have motivated Navalny's release.

Even if the protesters were not responsible for getting Navalny out of jail, they were part of an event that will likely have real significance for the opposition movement. This protest differed from recent similar events in two major ways: it was illegal but well attended, and it was organized without the help of the most popular opposition leaders.

Firstly, this protest was the largest unsanctioned rally in recent years. The location listed on the Facebook event was Manezh Square, but it is unlikely that a permit for a public gathering could be obtained for that space, given the nature of the protest, the short notice, the initial expected low turnout, and the high-profile location of Manzeh right next to the Kremlin. Following the verdict, it became clear that people were angry and planning to protest, so around 5:00 PM authorities closed off Manezh for emergency repairs and flooded the area with law enforcement officers. This meant that protesters congregated on crowded street corners and metro exits, spilled out into the street, and obstructed traffic, which, because this was an unsanctioned protest, essentially put everyone in attendance at risk of arrest. Given the precedent established by the Bolotnaya case, and that the actions undertaken at this rally--like blocking a major thoroughfare or scaling the face of the State Duma--were notably more disruptive than those seen at earlier protests, protesters were at high risk, though relatively few were ultimately arrested.

Secondly, this protest was organized without prominent faces that have become the hallmarks of the opposition movement in the last few years, like Ilya Yashin, Boris Nemtsov, Dmitry Gudkov and Ilya Ponomarev, all of whom were in Kirov supporting Navalny. Instead, the Moscow protest seems to have been organized in the style of the first spontaneous protest following the 2011 Duma election at Chisty Prudy, which was almost entirely promoted through social networking sites and personal social networks (ie. asking friends and family to attend), and to a lesser extent through radio and online publicity. BG notes, for example, that Yabloko's Sergei Mitrokhin mentioned the Manzeh protest on Dozhd' TV that afternoon. The Facebook event for the protest, which attracted many of its nearly 11,000 RSVPs in just a few hours, was administered by the group "We were on Bolotnaya Square and we will return" (Мы были на Болотной площади и придем еще). This account has served as a key tool for the opposition to distribute reliable, trustworthy information about events since the 2011-2012 election protests, many of which it helped organize. The account is a collective of anonymous people who are not professional activists and who could probably attend a rally without being recognized. That such a large rally could be arranged without the help of any recognizable opposition leaders speaks to the grass-roots nature of the movement.

The high attendance of this protest, in spite of the short notice, illegal status, lack of recognized leadership, and grassroots-style organization suggests that more life remains in the opposition movement than some have expected. It demonstrates that people are committed to the cause despite the recent crackdown. It suggests that social links between like-minded people concerned with these issues remain strong, which is essential for a successful movement moving forward. It also contradicts the view that protests will inevitably fade out because Russians are risk-averse. Finally, the perception that Navalny's early release was an outcome of the protest--whether it is or not--should also provide a critical injection of success and enthusiasm to a movement that has been at a low point for months.

Beyond its meaning for the opposition, this protest demonstrated to the Kremlin that the movement can continue without its leader. The state's interest in putting Navalny behind bars is in part based in a Soviet belief in the power of hierarchy. That logic dictates that a single leader holds all the power and dictates his subordinates' actions. If the leader is eliminated, the whole organization dissolves. This protest indicates that the opposition movement does not, in fact, work according to that logic. As persuasive a figure as Navalny is, he was not the sole motivating force of the opposition. (Indeed, if he had been, the opposition would probably be less disorganized). This protest makes clear that large rallies of passionate, committed citizens could easily continue regardless of whether or not Navalny is sitting in prison.

This piece originally appeared in The Interpreter.