In late January 2021, some of the largest protests in the modern history of Russia took place in support of Alexei Navalny. In more than 100 cities across the country. hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to show their support, to which the Russian authorities responded by massively detaining, beating, and torturing the protesters. Less than six months after the start of the uprisings in Belarus, Moscow now has its own “Okrestina” , and the actions of the Russian Federal Guard Service are no longer much different from those of the Belarusian Special Police Units (a.k.a. OMON).
How can Russian civil society and independent politicians respond? What can the European Union do? What will the year 2021 be like and how important is the Belarussian experience in the Russian context? These and many other questions were discussed on February 4th during a virtual conversation “Defending Democracy in Russia And Belarus: A Look Into A Run-Up To 2021 Parliamentary Elections in Russia”, organized by the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, the Foundation for Democratic Development and the office of MEP Andrius Kubilius. The meeting was moderated by Professor Sergei Medvedev from the Free University.
Situation Across Russian Cities and the Role of Independent Municipal Politicians.
The first part of the discussion was dedicated to the January events in Moscow and other regions of Russia. With regard to the nature of current protests, sociologist Denis Volkov noted: “In 2019, for the first time, we saw how the removal of independent candidates for the Moscow City Duma, which seems to be a completely local, regional event, grew into an event of a federal scale. People across the country saw the election participation denied to [independent] candidates and anyone who disagreed was subjected to suppression and attacks. This is when we noticed for the first time a clear divide between the young and the elderly, between the Internet users and the TV viewers. 2020 has shown that these groups have radically opposed attitudes toward all events: the amendments to the constitution, the extension of Putin’s term, and the protests in Russia.”
„The protests in Nizhny Novgorod were the largest in the city’s history. Around 10,000 people took to the streets. There were also many who supported the protesters, but stayed at home simply because they were afraid to attend an unauthorized demonstration,” said Zhanna Nemtsova.
Andrei Fateyev, a deputy of the Tomsk City Duma, also pointed out the change of the social climate in his city: “On January 23, more than 3,000 people took to the streets of Tomsk. Mind you, it was in the winter with -20°C outside, and the demonstration was not authorized. Moreover, we had 10 times more people who did not dare to go out and who offered us enormous support on social networks. This has never happened before in Tomsk.”
Alexander Kirsanov, an activist from Alexei Navalny’s regional center, noticed a similar trend: “The demonstrations on January 23 and 31 have been the largest in Vladivostok for the past 10 years. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people took to the streets. The authorities responded by cracking down on them with riot police. We also had an event that was appalling for the whole county: in Vladivostok, a man was shot in the leg while he was being arrested. Never before have we had protesters being shot at.”
The problem of police violence was also raised by the St. Petersburg municipal deputy Maria Voyutskaya: “They deliberately violate laws and take pleasure in bullying people. The worst thing I have heard in the last 2.5 years, i.e. the time when I began to live my real life, was the phrase once said by one of the heads of the 64th Division of St. Petersburg Police. And this phrase is a very important one: ‘We belong to a different race’. It made clear to me everything I know about the power structures in our country.”
The main message from municipal deputies to their voters was a call to participate in future elections and to use the “Smart Voting” strategy. For example, the deputy Yury Mazurik, who won the municipal elections in St. Petersburg with the use of “Smart Voting”, said: “In St. Petersburg, almost 400 out of 1,500 deputies were elected with the help of“Smart Voting”. In my municipality, only 3 out of 30 United Russia party candidates won. This means that the number of candidates who won with the support of “Smart Voting” was close to 90%.”
“If the opposition, which today makes up 30% to 50% of the population, wants to somehow express its views, it clearly must take part in the upcoming elections. Everything will depend on whether independent and alternative politicians are ready to do their best in campaigning and mobilizing their supporters,” said Denis Volkov.
“People have no opportunity for a dialogue with the authorities. Sometimes people just want to express their opinion, but they do not have a platform to do so. Hence, the main task for the opposition becomes to urge people to take part in the elections.” confirmed the need for a big election turnout Ekaterina Duntseva, an independent municipal deputy from Rzhev.
Belarusian Experience in the Russian Context
In the second part of the discussion, representatives of democratic Belarus expressed their views on the situation in Russia. Aliaksandr Dobrovolski, the advisor to Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, saw direct parallels between Russian and Belarusian democratic movements: “It was clear to us that there would inevitably come a moment in Belarus when people would remember about their dignity. This moment would give birth to hope. And this moment came in Belarus last year. I am absolutely sure that this moment is coming now in Russia as well.”
“The most important thing is to find forms of protest and international activity that will help keep this topic on the agenda in Europe, the U.S., and international organizations. It is the protests that provide a so-called ‘picture’. When it disappears, the stakeholders lose their interest. Now we are bringing back the structures that were destroyed by Lukashenko, everything that constitutes a civil society,” said Franak Viacorka, foreign policy advisor to S. Tihanovskaya.
“This year Belarus arrived very quickly to Russia. One feature that Belarus and Russia have in common is social solidarity, in a situation where the authorities have not only stopped taking people into account but even lost any desire to listen to them. They live in some sort of a parallel universe,” stated Anatoly Kotov, a foreign policy and trade expert at the “People’s Crisis Management”
According to Olga Kovalkova, a member of the Presidium of the Coordinating Council, now is the right time for the democratic forces of Belarus and Russia to begin establishing closer cooperation: “We should think about the ways to use each other’s opportunities to strengthen our agenda at the international stage.” Politician Anatoly Lebedko also pointed to a great potential for cooperation between Russians and Belarusians abroad: “We should organize demonstrations at the embassies of Belarus and Russia and do this more actively.”
The European Union and Sanctions
“The situation in Russia and Belarus is extremely important not only for the Russians and Belarusians, but also for Europe, for the European Union. And over the past year, we have noticed in the European Parliament that our tools and capabilities have not always been effective enough. Therefore, today, the question of how to strengthen our fight for democracy should be put at the top of the agenda again,” said Andrius Kubilius, the former Prime Minister of Lithuania and the current member of the European Parliament.
Vladimir Kara-Murza pointed to the need for new sanctions against Putin’s inner circle: “It is common knowledge that the biggest export product that Putin’s regime supplies to the West is not oil or gas. This product is corruption. And we are not talking about sanctions against Russia, but about personal sanctions against Putin’s corrupt oligarchs.”
Michael Gahler, a German MEP, also addressed the sanctions against the Putin regime: “It is important to talk not only about personal sanctions, but also about the Nord Stream 2. I am in favor of stopping the construction of the pipeline, although there are many opinions on this among Germans. However, the current development of the situation gives me hope that the mood in Berlin will slowly but surely change.”
“In the case of Navalny, the European interests were directly affected,” continued Sergei Lagodinsky, a member of the European Parliament from the Green Party. He is sure that the sanctions exist not for educational purposes but rather to demonstrate that you can’t do whatever you please on the territory of the EU. It is important not to forget the murder of an opposition politician in the center of Berlin and the attack on the Bundestag, which most likely came from Moscow.
French MEP Bernard Guetta expressed an opinion that the EU should appeal to Russian citizens and not to Putin. The Greens deputy Viola von Cramon also supported him: “For our part, we are ready to support Russians and do everything possible to make Russia a democratic country.”
“The vast majority of my colleagues in the European Parliament support the Russian and Belarusian people in their struggle for democracy,” claims former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek. He adds that this struggle is a reminder of what it means to live in a democratic country and how strongly we must defend this right, both inside and outside the European Union.
 Translator’s Note: Okrestina Detention Centre is a pre-trial detention center in Minsk, Belarus. The prison is known as a detention center for activists of the Belarusian opposition arrested during mass protests against the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. The center is notorious for multiple alleged violations including threats of physical harm, humiliation, beatings, and torture.