“Gotcha” Videos Undermine Russian Opposition’s Credibility

August 29, 2013
Navalny at a campaign rally | AFP

Alexei Navalny, the opposition’s candidate for Moscow’s mayor, had a rough few days last weekend. At the end of the week he was given a verbal warning for breaking laws governing campaign literature – laws that it’s very unclear whether Navalny actually broke. Then, over the weekend, Navalny was briefly detained by police, as were some of his supporters and staff, during a campaign rally. Only a week earlier, the door of an apartment where some of his supporters were staying was sawed off by Russia police, accompanied by Just Russia’s candidate for mayor, Nikolai Levichev.

At first glance, these are some fairly Draconian measures being taken by Moscow’s authorities.

Then comes this video, initially sent to me via Storyful’s “Open Newsroom.” It appears to show police letting a group of men into the back of Navalny’s Sokolniki Park protest. Some of the men then walk onto the grass and appear to try to unplug Navalny’s generator, an act which would kill the power to his sound system. According to The Interpreter’s translator, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, the only reason that the men do not pull the plug is that they believe that they could be electrocuted. Realizing that they have attracted the attention of a lot of onlookers, as well as the narrator of the video, the police surround the men to protect them.

The way the police act may indicate that these men are, in fact, plain-clothed police. At the very least, the police appear to be defending the men from the crowd rather than arresting them for trying to shut the power off:

Pretty damning stuff, right?

Maybe not. Strictly speaking, Navalny’s rally broke the rules. The rally was too loud, as it seems that the Navalny campaign did not have the permit to use the sound system. Also, the stage did block the entire area it was placed on, and it appears that Navalny did not have the proper permit to do that either. If this is accurate, then the police have the right, legally speaking, to shut down the rally and kill the power for the sound system. Most of the people the police let in by opening the barriers don’t appear to be connected at all with the attempts to kill the power, so we may just be seeing police opening the area to the broader public immediately before dispersing the crowd.

In other words, what we’re seeing may be completely legal, and if an American politician set up an unauthorized rally, with a sound system and stage, in the middle of a park, it’s not unlikely that the rally would be shut down as well. The difference might be that the Russian police, afraid of how things might look, may have chosen to use plain-clothed officers, or recruited civilians, to do the dirty work.

As our translator Catherine Fitzpatrick notes, the crowd, and the video’s narrator, are trying hard to become part of the story. The crowd is gathering around the men, yelling “weak, weak” to ridicule the men who are clearly not really trying to pull the plug because they’ve already decided that it’s not worth the danger.  The narrator ensures that he speaks loudly, repeating a narrative that he is trying to make sure the viewer understands. The level of excitement among the videographer, and the others in the crowd, indicates that they are gleeful that they caught the police in a “gotcha” moment. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on in the video, but the opposition is trying to make it black and white. The issue, as far as they are trying to paint it, is that Navalny is persecuted at every turn. However, sometimes Navalny is guilty of not “dotting i’s and crossing T’s,” so to speak. By turning the story into a discussion of the specific police actions, they’re jeopardizing any moral high ground that they lay claim to.

And what about the Navalny supporter’s famous “door” that was sawed off. That incident was pretty alarming, but the focus on the door missed the point. The door was sawed off because the supporters would not open the door for the police.

In other words, even when there was wrongdoing on the part of authorities (and there is plenty of that), the over-dramatization from the opposition may actually be undercutting their main argument.

At the heart of the matter, Navalny is being persecuted for his beliefs, as really most people who speak against the regime loudly enough for them to hear it are. The issue we should be discussing, however, is the content of Navalny’s message and all the illegitimate ways that those who oppose him have tried to silence that message. The focus should be on whether or not Navalny is being unjustly prosecuted for a crime he may not have committed, or on the corruption Navalny has helped expose, or on the manner in which Sergei Sobyanin can resign just to force a short campaign season. Those issues are more important than whether someone shuts off an unlicensed sound system, and “gotcha” videos can undercut the credibility of the movement.