the acid test of dissent in russia– Alexei Navalny, leader of the opposition

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Huge demonstrations once again swept through Russia on June 12, as thousands took to the streets in over 160 cities to protest the corruption and authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin’s regime. This followed street protests by Russia’s emerging opposition in February and March that were the biggest in years.

He asserted that government officials had leaned on audio-visual vendors not to contract with him or his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). Authorities then announced that anyone caught displaying a political banner or sign or shouting a political slogan on Tverskaya Street would be arrested. Scores of riot police and National Guard enforced the threat as the protests began, seemingly picking out random members of the crowd—mostly teens and young adults—for arrest.

One arrest, however, was anything but random. Navalny himself was picked up just outside his apartment building on his way to the rally. Witnesses say it was hard to estimate how many people joined the protests: The streets were already crowded with families enjoying the holiday, which featured demonstrations and reenactments of Russian military victories. Some reenactors joined in the protests. Moscow police say 5,000 people participated in the Tverskaya protests—the real number is likely higher.

Navalny has emerged as the preeminent face of the Russian opposition since he and others led large-scale protests in 2011-12.

His prominence and clear disfavor with the Kremlin has exposed him to danger. Navalny is still recovering from an attack with antiseptic dye known as “brilliant green” (zelyonka). The first time someone threw the chemical at his face in March, he dismissed it as no big deal. The second attack in April required hospital treatment, and Navalny says he’s lost about 80 percent of the sight in his right eye. Doctors say the dye was mixed with some other, caustic chemical and may cause permanent damage. After Monday’s protests, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail, where he is unlikely to receive medical attention for his eye.

The second attack came not long after a Moscow court banned him from running in next year’s presidential elections. In February, an appeals court upheld his conviction for embezzlement, which would preclude his candidacy under Russian law. The European Court of Human Rights had overturned the ruling, but their word carries no weight in Russian courts. To needle the government, Navalny sat in court as the judge read out his affirmed conviction, tweeting images of the original ruling to underline that the new opinion was a verbatim copy of the old one.

Physical safety aside, he has every reason to run for office. Earlier this year, he made a documentary exposing massive corruption perpetrated by Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and some of the country’s influential oligarchs. The video went viral in Russia, spawning the tens-of-thousands-strong February and March protests. To date, the video has over 22 million views. Medvedev’s popularity plummeted, as Navalny’s name recognition soared.

Russian politics has been known to change overnight, though. According to Mark Galeotti of the European Council of Foreign Relations and the Institute of International Relations Prague, there are three different forms of opposition movement in Russia. Blue-collar Russians may be Navalny’s most natural allies: The rickety and slow economy has caused massive labor unrest, which helped propel the demonstrations in 2011-12 despite very loose organization and little leadership. The Communist party is the only group that has the nationwide machinery to organize such a large group of people, but for now its leadership is complacent. And Navalny’s movement is centered around him, with a diverse array of supporters who unite on an anti-corruption message, but not necessarily much else.

This might make Navalny seem like a Soviet-era dissident, standing athwart the regime, proud but powerless. But there are key differences. Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, and Sharansky couldn’t organize a movement the way Navalny has. As Galeotti also points out: “The dissident movement was born out of hopelessness. This movement is born of long-term hope.”

Navalny wants to be prepared in case the polls are wrong, and he wants to win supporters in case they’re right. When he’s not in court or lockup, he spends a lot of time out in public, surrounded by crowds, which opens him up to another attack. No problem: “The more of these incidents there are, the more [people] send us money.” And if the impossible happens? “Then Russia will have a president with a stylish white eye.”

source–weekly std, benjamin parker, alexi navalny, boris nemtsov, alisher usmanov, genrikh padva, serb, a;exandr petrunko, alexei kulakov, mark galeotti,

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