Most Russians were looking forward to 2021. And this was not surprising. The pandemic completely changed the usual order and complicated the already difficult lives of millions of people. The poisoning of Navalny, which nearly led to his death, the constitutional amendments granting Putin the right to virtually life-long rule, the “whims” of dictator Lukashenka, an ally of the Kremlin and a neighbour who lost his mind and virtually “raped” his own country to stay in power.
The events of 2020 were hardly kind and positive. Therefore, following the principle “it’s so bad it couldn’t be worse,” ordinary Russians waited for the approach of 2021 as the fresh start to forget about all the troubles of the difficult 2020. But it didn’t happen as expected…
The long-awaited New Year began quite actively and unpredictably. Navalny’s wife, optimistic delivering a line from a popular Russian movie: “Bring us some vodka, boy. We’re flying home,” ended in the quite expected arrest, trial, and imprisonment of “Putin’s main enemy” who returned to Russia after treatment in Germany, where he had ended up after being poisoned by FSB agents. In Germany, Navalny, with the help of his entourage, investigated his poisoning and proved the unconditional involvement of Russian intelligence agents in the assassination attempt. After such exposure, few expected Navalny to return to Russia. The Kremlin top leadership must have been surprised when Navalny and his wife boarded a plane heading to Moscow. That was a principled step for Navalny. He has always emphasised that he sees his future in Russia.
But Putin could not allow the opposition activist to appear in the country, so “a judge on call” sent Navalny to prison directly from the police station, holding an urgent “bespoken” out-of-court hearing.
Protests in Russia
The event sparked a series of protests that engulfed more than 200 cities and towns in Russia. Authorities “responded” with rubber truncheons and a record number of detained citizens. According to official data alone, more than 17,500 people were arrested. Many of the activists were thrown behind bars.
The so-called “sanitary cases” became a juristic “invention” at the beginning of the year, for which Navalny’s supporters were prosecuted primarily. They were charged with violating the ban on rallies during the pandemic, thus avoiding any political motives in the actions of the authorities.
The brutality of events of early 2021 in Russia resembled last year’s events in Belarus, when Lukashenka’s security forces virtually treaded the desire for freedom of the Belarusian people into the ground. Putin realised that the aggressive actions of the security forces affected his ratings. so they went quiet for a while. But on 13 March, at a municipal forum in Moscow, a hall with about 200 independent members was blocked by police special forces. All forum participants were sent to court, where they were accused of organising and participating in an “undesirable” event.
Later, new large-scale events in more than 100 cities, linked with the hunger strike announced by Navalny in response to the authorities’ disregard for his health complaints, were held. More than 2,000 people were taken to police stations. Most of them were detained after the rallies as their involvement was established via operative video recordings and data from surveillance cameras.
Those events resulted in the nadir of the United Russia ratings over the past 13 years. Ahead of the State Duma elections, this state of affairs obviously did not suit the authorities, so the Kremlin decided to completely “clean up” all dissent with the current regime. In April, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was recognised as an “extremist organisation.” The political activities of Navalny and his supporters were practically declared out of law.
In May, amendments were made to existing legislation, introducing a new term of “person involved in extremist activities.” Anyone who expressed support for Navalny was barred from running in the election under the new law. Even for municipal positions.
On 31 May, the FSB blocked a plane with opposition politician Andrey Pivovarov on board in Pulkovo airport. He was accused of leading an “undesirable organisation.” The main and only reason for his arrest was the latter’s desire to run in the State Duma elections and compete with the United Russia candidates. A few days later, the opposition leader from St. Petersburg, Maxim Reznik, was put behind bars. No evidence of drug use was provided, but he was not allowed to run in the elections. Both opposition politicians are still in custody.
Putin, as usual, separated himself from the United Russia, its declining ratings, in the elections. Shoigu and Lavrov were thrown to the wolves. They were a party “locomotive” for the ruling party candidates, the party whose members have been lately passing anti-social and predatory laws in favour of Putin’s oligarchic entourage, not the Russian people.
Yuri Fedorenko, Head of NGO “Agency for Development of Democracy and Information Freedoms”
Views of the author do not necessarily reflect the official position of the editorial staff