Wednesday’s Protests: An Embattled Opposition and Easy Scapegoats

June 13, 2013

An estimated 10,000 people participated in a protest held in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square yesterday, according to a report by The Moscow Times. This reduced figure testified to the effects of the repressive legislation introduced since the beginning of the large-scale protests against electoral fraud in December 2011—a movement which, at its height, attracted crowds of up to 100,000—and the difficulties of maintaining public interest in political change.

Yet at the same time, yesterday’s protest also showed that the opposition is surviving against the odds. Alexey Navalny, currently on trial on trumped-up charges of embezzlement, led to protestors in their demands for political freedom and dignity, with his supporters reportedly shouting “Navalny for Mayor,” in reference to his plans to run in the Moscow mayoral election in September. The likelihood that Navalny will be convicted before that time is high—but his very public persecution has shown how feared he is by the Kremlin.

Yesterday also saw violent altercations between supporters and opponents of the draft legislation banning so-called “homosexual propaganda,” passed by the lower house of the Duma and expected to become law in the near future. This law has demonstrated the fundamental opportunism and cynicism of the current government: taking advantage of widespread distrust or prejudice against a minority lacking any political power in order to re-direct public anger towards the phantom threat to children posed by homosexuals. Indeed, by focusing on the effect of the “homosexual lifestyle” on children, this law (which is nebulous enough to allow authorities to persecute homosexuals on almost any pretext) unsubtly perpetuates the ugly conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia.

Among the opposition activists The Interpreter has spoken to, the consensus is that the situation will get worse before it gets better. That means we could see many more innocents in the dock, roughed up by pro-Kremlin thugs or thrown in prison on invented pretexts in the next year. But long-term, there is cautious optimism, the feeling being that the Kremlin would not be resorting to this type of clunky authoritarianism without a genuine fear that the political narrative has escaped their control. And indeed, with the absence of the type of totalitarian controls necessary to keep a population captive, and in a country that increasingly expects more from life than what Putin’s “managed democracy” deigns to allow them.