From Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, to the Belarusian capital of Minsk, the cry was the same on Sunday: “Ukhodi!” – a Russian-language call for their countries’ authoritarian rulers to “Leave!”
Unfortunately for the pro-democracy protesters, the regimes of Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko also answered in unison – with harsh crackdowns that included more than 5,000 arrests on Sunday across Russia and 167 in Belarus. The centres of Moscow and Minsk were turned into fenced-off fortresses by their long-ruling leaders, both of whom claim the protests are Western-backed plots to force them from office.
In Russia, it was the second weekend of protests following the arrest of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, who was detained on Jan. 17 at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport as he returned to the country after surviving a Novichok poisoning last year. For Belarus, it was the 25th Sunday of regular protests since an Aug. 9 presidential election that most Belarusians believe was won by Mr. Lukashenko’s challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Mr. Navalny remains in prison, and Ms. Tsikhanouskaya has been living in exile since receiving threats shortly after the election, but their supporters continue to organize in their absence. On Sunday, tens of thousands of people joined protests in dozens of cities around Russia, chanting “Putin is a thief!” and “Down with the Tsar!”
Underscoring the links between the latest wave of protests in Russia, and the continuing uprising in neighbouring Belarus, demonstrators in Moscow and elsewhere have made “Long live Belarus!” one of their regular protest cries. Protesters in both countries have adopted Soviet rocker Viktor Tsoi’s perestroika-era classic Changes as the anthem of their movements.
“The fact that protesters in Russia are chanting ‘Long live Belarus’ – the most popular pro-democracy chant – is incredible. I can’t believe it’s happening,” said Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist who covered the early protests in Minsk. “The reaction of the police [in Russia] is also brutal, so that’s another similarity.”
Mr. Lukashenko’s regime, which many believe would have already collapsed if not for the economic and political support it has received from the Kremlin, has resorted to brute force to retain its grip on power. The Viasna human-rights group says it has recorded more than 25,000 political arrests in the country since August, and at least four people have died as a result of police violence.
Mr. Putin’s security forces appear to be following a similar script. Protesters who came into the streets on Sunday were met with greater repression than the previous week, when 3,000 people were arrested.
Multiple videos that were posted online appeared to show riot police in different cities grabbing people at random off the streets and throwing them onto waiting buses for transport to prison. Other clips showed helmeted riot police pummelling helpless protesters with batons. At least 82 journalists were reported to be among those arrested on Sunday, according to the OVD-Info, an independent Russian group that monitors human-rights violations.
“They’ve clearly decided to ratchet up the violence one notch, to both scare away the timid and to make the point that the Kremlin could ratchet it up a hell of a lot higher if it wanted,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services and the author of A Short History of Russia.
While protests against Mr. Putin’s almost 22-year grip on power have intermittently flared up over the past decade, the demonstrators who took to the streets over the past two weekends have surprised observers with their numbers and tenacity. Mr. Galeotti said the Kremlin appeared to be “worried, concerned and irked” by the unrest. “What they don’t want to do is allow this to pick up momentum,” he said.
The spark for the latest protests has been the Kremlin’s treatment of Mr. Navalny. The opposition leader has accused Mr. Putin of personally ordering the attempt on his life last summer, and his decision to return to Russia – knowing he would almost certainly be arrested – has galvanized supporters.
Mr. Navalny is due to appear in court on Tuesday, when a judge will decide whether his departure to Germany in the wake of his poisoning – he was flown out of the country in a coma to Berlin, where he received life-saving treatment – constituted a violation of the terms of a suspended sentence. He was convicted in 2014 on a fraud charge widely seen as trumped up as punishment for his political activities.
If he is found to have violated his suspended sentence, he could face up to 3½ years in jail. Mr. Navalny’s supporters are expected to stage another protest outside the courtroom on Tuesday.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell both issued statements on Sunday condemning the use of force against protesters and the targeting of journalists for arrest. The Russian Foreign Ministry retorted by accusing the U.S. of having a “behind-the-scenes role” in the recent protests, and demanding an end to foreign interference.
Sunday’s largest demonstration was in Moscow, where Mr. Navalny’s allies had called on supporters to gather outside the Lubyanka building that is the headquarters of the feared FSB security service, and then to march toward the office of Mr. Putin’s presidential administration. However, the plan was made impossible by the tight police cordon around the city centre. Roads and metro stations were shut, and restaurants in the vicinity were ordered to close for the day.
An hour before the demonstration was supposed to start, organizers switched the location to a square in front of a trio of railway stations, on the perimeter of the city’s downtown. Thousands gathered there, then marched toward the notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison, where Mr. Navalny is being held, only to be blocked by another line of riot police.
The shifting nature of the protest is another tactic borrowed from Belarus, where Mr. Lukashenko’s security forces have repeatedly made it difficult for the country’s opposition to reach the centre of Minsk. The Belarusian opposition has adapted by staging smaller protests around the country, and by using creative alternatives – ranging from flash mobs to underground theatre performances – to keep the movement alive.
On Sunday, the 176th consecutive day of protest, there were scattered demonstrations in Minsk and other cities.
Ms. Liubakova, the Belarusian journalist who is now a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank, said Belarusians were now hoping that Russia’s protest movement could learn from their example.
“There is more than just solidarity” between the protest movements, she said. “These are two separate issues, but clearly the situations in both countries affect each other.”
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