Russian students protested corruption en masse in March. Now, the government has increasingly pressured them to back off ahead of new demonstrations scheduled for Monday. There’s talk of banning youths from protests.
Alexei Navalny sits earnestly in front of the camera and explains how he recruited kindergarteners and other children to march with his party’s flag. Then, images from events for United Russia, the party that dominates the Kremlin, take over the screen. Finally, the 41-year-old Navalny makes a direct appeal to his high school and university viewers to participate in countrywide protests against corruption on Monday.
The date has been carefully considered. June 12 is a national holiday, known as Russia Day, and marks the country’s declaration of independence in 1990. Demonstrations have been permitted in some cities and prohibited in a number of others. In any case, the national celebrations will make it difficult for police to make arrests.
This will be the second such action initiated by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. In the first, on March 26, thousands of Russians took to the streets from Moscow to Vladivostok. Most observers were surprised by the large presence of young and even very young faces.
Navalny mobilized his supporters via social media and especially with a YouTube documentary that accuses Dmitry Medvedev of concealing his ownership of “palaces, yachts and wineries.” The prime minister’s spokesperson has dismissed the film as “campaign rhetoric.”
Navalny has already announced that he will run for president in 2018 – unless he’s somehow made ineligible by virtue of being in jail or under house arrest. A few days ago, a Moscow court ordered Navalny to delete the film about Medvedev. The case was brought by an extremely wealthy oligarch who accused Navalny of lying.
Administration figures appeared surprised by the number of young participants in March’s demonstrations. Reports from Russia have increasingly documented the fact that teachers, docents and even judges are trying to keep youths from taking to the streets to protest again.
“They told me that I was too young and had no idea what I was doing,” said Dmitry (not his real name), a 17-year-old who was summoned to discuss the issue with a youth commission at a Moscow court. Dmitry had attended two demonstrations, one on March 26 and another on April 2, but, he said, only as an observer and not as a participant. On both occasions, like many protesters, he was arrested and later released. In one case, the youth commission determined that Dmitry had participated in an unauthorized demonstration and blocked traffic. His family was forced to pay a fine, but he intends to appeal the decision.
Dmitry sees Navalny as a credible politician – “he describes objective developments, which he backs up with facts” – and said large numbers of youths were motivated to attend the protests because “they want to take part in changing things in our country.”
Stifling the youth
Russian leaders are considering a law banning young people from participating in protests. Government figures claim that minors are being instrumentalized by opposition politicians such as Navalny.
Valentina Matviyenko, the powerful chair of the Federation Council, Russia’s chamber of states, was the first to put forth the idea of banning young people from attending protests. “Minors can in no way make carefully considered decisions,” she said in a recent newspaper interview.
Matviyenko received support from Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova, who said: “People who have not reached maturity in their political beliefs should not be the object of manipulation and provocation.”
Even Russian pop stars are telling youths to stay at home rather than go to demonstrations. In May, the well-known singer Alisa Vox released her new video, “Baby Boy,” in which she plays the role of a teacher who makes fun of students for attending Navalny’s protests, comparing them to “marionettes.”
“In your heart you want change?” Vox sings. “Change yourself sweetheart.” The Russian TV network Dozhd reported that the song had been commissioned by a former employee of the president’s administration. The Kremlin has stated that it had nothing to do with the song.