ALERT: Russia – Harsh Crackdowns Likely as Opposition Brings Forward Nationwide Protests

EVENT

On 18 April supporters of imprisoned opposition activist Alexei Navalny called for new nationwide protests to take place on 21 April, bringing forward their plans over concerns over Navalny's rapidly deteriorating health.

SIGNIFICANCE

The announcement comes after nationwide protests were held across Russian in January following the return and subsequent arrest of Alexei Navalny (see Sibylline Situation Update Brief 22 January for more details). Like during those earlier protests, supporters of Navalny and anti-government
activists are likely to rally in cities centres across the country, in particular Moscow, St Petersburg, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, and Kazan. Organisers have called for rallies in all Russian cities, but the largest demonstrations are expected to begin at Manezhnaya Square in Moscow and Palace Square in St Petersburg respectively at 19:00 on 21 April.

Navalny's allies at the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) previously stated on 23 March that they had planned to hold the largest anti-government demonstrations in modern Russian history, but only after 500,000 people had pledged their support on the group's website. At the time of writing on 19 April, the total stands at just over 460,000, though opposition leaders have highlighted the rapidly deteriorating health of Navalny, who is undergoing a hunger strike, as forcing them to bring the plan forward. This week Navalny's doctors voiced concerns that his health is so bad that he could die within
days. Navalny was reportedly moved to a prison hospital on 19 April, but not before the United States on 18 April threatened 'consequences' if Navalny dies in prison.

However, another key reason why the planned protests are being brought forward is likely to be the Moscow Prosecutor's Office request last week that the Moscow City Court label three organisations linked to Navalny as 'extremist' - namely the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the Citizens’ Rights
Protection Foundation, and Navalny’s regional headquarters. Marking a significant escalation in the Kremlin's efforts to curb pro-Navalny opposition, such a designation would leave members of the organisations vulnerable to harsh sentences of up to 10 years, effectively posing an existential threat
to their ability to organise legally under those organisations. Such a designation would not only undermine the opposition's ability to organise mass unrest, but also, and perhaps just as importantly, coordinate anti-government votes ahead of the State Duma elections this September (for more details
relating to unrest and the upcoming election, see Sibylline Situation Update Brief 12 March).

FORECAST

While the FBK has managed to gather over 460,000 pledges to participate in anti government protests on its website, the extent of turnout remains uncertain given the difficulty the opposition has previously had in galvanising mass participation in anti-government demonstrations. However, with Navalny's heath deteriorating and the prospect of Navalny-affiliated groups being designated 'extremist organisations', perceptions that time is running out to freely protest Navalny's incarceration will likely see significant numbers turn out on Wednesday evening, with the largest rallies expected in Moscow, St Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, and Kazan. In addition, any further deterioration of Navalny's health, or indeed his death, would likely reinforce large-scale turnout and increase the risk of harsher sanctions from the West.

The protests will notably coincide with President Vladimir Putin's State of the Nation televised address, which comes amid spiking tensions with Ukraine following US sanctions last week (see Sibylline Alert 15 April for more details). As a result, security will be particularly tight at any and all demonstrations across the country, with security forces likely to clampdown hard on protesters at a particularly tense moment in Russian relations with the West. Thus, as during previous instances of nationwide protests, the risk of arbitrary detention of bystanders will remain elevated in the run-up to and particularly during the demonstrations on Wednesday. However, as during previous demonstrations, the relative lack of support Navalny has in Russia (despite the significant coverage and support he has received from the West) means the protests are unlikely to seriously challenge the regime's stability.

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