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Russia Arrests Nearly 1,400 at Opposition Protest as Leading Activist Is Possibly Poisoned in Jail

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Police in Moscow used violent force to stop an opposition protest on Saturday, arresting nearly 1,400 people in what’s been described as the largest mass arrest in Russia in a decade. Meanwhile, Alexei Navalny—one of Russia’s most prominent opposition figures—has been hospitalized after suffering an acute allergic reaction in jail. Navalny’s doctor said he may have been exposed to “some toxic agent.” Saturday’s protest was organized to denounce the recent barring of opposition candidates from running in an upcoming election for Moscow City Council. We speak with Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, where he teaches Russian politics. He lived and worked in Moscow for 13 years and co-authored the new book, “Putin v. the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia.” He is also the author of “Moscow in Movement: Power and Opposition in Putin’s Russia.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Russia, where police in Moscow used violent force to stop an opposition protest Saturday. Nearly 1,400 people were rounded up in what’s been described as the largest mass arrest in Russia in a decade.

Meanwhile, one of Russia’s most prominent opposition figures, Alexei Navalny, has been hospitalized after suffering an acute allergic reaction in jail. Navalny’s doctor said he may have been exposed to “some toxic agent.” Navalny was arrested Wednesday, ahead of Saturday’s protest, and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Saturday’s protest was organized to denounce the recent barring of opposition candidates from running in an upcoming election for Moscow City Council. Protesters spoke out against the election authorities.

PROTESTER: [translated] We are here so that the independent candidates, for whom we have left our signatures, would be allowed to participate in the election. They should take part, and the citizens should vote, if they were allowed. Let people decide for themselves who will represent them. That is it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London. His book, co-authored with Graeme Robertson, is just out. It’s titled Putin v. the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia. He’s also author of Moscow in Movement: Power and Opposition in Putin’s Russia.

Samuel Greene, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Talk about the significance of this mass arrest of over 1,300 people.

SAMUEL GREENE: We really haven’t seen anything quite on this scale before. I think over the last year or so we have seen a tendency toward sort of increasing confrontation. Obviously, the opposition, increasingly frustrated they’re not able to get on the ballot, they’re not able to get the constitutional rights that are guaranteed to them in terms of participating in elections. And, in fact, the right to assemble peacefully in protest, which is also guaranteed by the Constitution, the government has banned more and more protests, but we’ve also seen at those protests that they have been more frequently bringing out the riot police. And if, you know, a few months ago we used to see a couple dozen, maybe a couple hundred people being carted away in police vans, now we’re seeing much greater numbers.

And we’re seeing a lot more violence. Right? So, we saw, you know, broken bones. We saw blood. We saw things being thrown. We saw—if you see the videos, some of what you were just showing earlier this morning—right?—there’s clearly a fairly vicious response. And I think it’s worth noting that this response is not provoked. Right? So, the protesters are, to an extent, breaking the law, in that the protests were not sanctioned by the government, but they were doing nothing more than occupying a public space. Right? We didn’t see rioting. We didn’t see destruction of property. We didn’t see rock throwing and that sort of thing.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what’s happened with Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned on Wednesday.

SAMUEL GREENE: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: They said he was calling for the protest on Saturday. And now it’s not clear what has happened to him.

SAMUEL GREENE: It is not at all clear, right. So, he is periodically dragged off to prison for a period of time. This time it was for 30 days on the charge of calling for people to participate in an unsanctioned protest. He’s fairly familiar with this drill, as a lot of opposition figures in Russia are these days.

He was, during or just after the protest, dragged off—sorry, moved off to a hospital with what was called a severe allergic reaction. The report was that there was a lot of swelling around his face and neck. His doctors came out to the hospital—his personal doctors came out to the hospital to check on him. They were not allowed access. I think they were able to see him and, to a certain extent, interview him through a closed door, but not more than that. Their report is that it does not seem to be an allergic reaction. Their feeling is that there may be some kind of toxic chemical that has somehow entered his system. And, of course, people—

AMY GOODMAN: His doctor, he is—

SAMUEL GREENE: —are sympathetic to him and were in and around the opposition—

AMY GOODMAN: He is calling for his sheets and everything around him to be tested. He was released apparently from the hospital, back in jail. And for people who don’t know who Alexei Navalny is, if you could explain? And what’s his relationship with Putin?

SAMUEL GREENE: Well, it’s not a pleasant relationship. Navalny has been probably the most prominent opposition leader in Russia since the last major wave of protests against Putin emerged in 2011, 2012. He is a lawyer and a anti-corruption campaigner who has built a network of activists around the country, both to run anti-corruption investigations into public officials, including the president himself, but many others in the system, and to contest elections for office, really, throughout the political system, so going up from things like city councils, as we have coming up, the Moscow City Council election in September, right up to the presidency. And Navalny himself was barred from running in the presidential election in 2018, which, of course, Putin won handily.

AMY GOODMAN: In a recent tweet, Samuel Greene, you wrote, “Putin knows he’s more likely to be brought down by elite defection than by mass unrest.” Can you explain?

SAMUEL GREENE: Sure, right. So, you know, Putin’s role in the Russian political system, at least as I understand it—right?—is to make the system work for the people at the top of the system. Right? So, there are a lot of very powerful interests in the economy, in the bureaucracy, in the security services, who themselves are not exactly legitimate with the average Russian citizen, who see them as sort of living off the wealth of the country at a time when many Russians are not doing very well, when there’s growing inequality and so on. Putin’s role is to manage that system, but really, very importantly, to make sure that—to manage the relationship with the Russian people. Right? He can be popular at a time when the rest of the Russian elite are not. And he’s been able to do that reasonably well.

But what we have been seeing in recent months, as the economy really has stagnated, really for the last six or years or so, we’ve seen declining real incomes for ordinary Russians and no light at the end of the economic tunnel. So we’ve seen Putin’s poll figures begin to decline. We’re seeing now a majority of respondents to opinion polls in Russia say they think the country is headed in the wrong direction. And that causes some nervousness among elites in terms of whether or not Putin is going to be able to continue to run the system in their interests. Right? And so, he may have wanted to send a signal to those elites that he is going to have, if you will, the courage of the system’s convictions—right?—that he will put the force of the state at the service of their interests and not be reticent to use violence, if need be, in managing the relationship with the opposition, and perhaps with the public more broadly.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you also talk about—

SAMUEL GREENE: Otherwise—yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —the murder of a very prominent LGBTQ activist, Yelena Grigoryeva? And I’m sorry if I’m mispronouncing it. Last August, dozens of LGBT activists were arrested during a banned protest in Saint Petersburg speaking up for sexual minorities. What happened to her?

SAMUEL GREENE: Well, we don’t really know. It is a little reminiscent of some of the conversations you were just having with your guests around Baltimore and the climate of race in the United States. Right? So, Putin has run some of his campaigning and rebuilt a large part of his legitimacy around the use of wedge issues, in ways that are familiar, I think, to American listeners and voters, one of the most powerful of which has been pushing against the LGBT community in Russia. So, there’s been a lot of punitive legislation, but there’s also been just a lot of rhetoric, which has empowered people who are homophobic and who are inclined to use violence, to feel that they can act with impunity. And so, we have—really, since this came to the fore in about 2012, we have seen increasing levels of violence among LGBT activists and, frankly, just members of the LGBT community, in general. And because of the stigma associated with it, it’s something that the police are simply not going to investigate with any seriousness. And so, we’re not likely, unfortunately, ever to know exactly what happened in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the comparison with Baltimore. What effect does President Trump’s deference to Putin have on Putin and on Russians, in general? I mean, you have these mass arrests that happened, the largest in a decade, almost 1,400 people arrested. Trump doesn’t tweet against that; he tweets against Baltimore, saying no human would want to live there.

SAMUEL GREENE: Well, I’m not sure that the Kremlin is looking for approval or disapproval from Washington. It was certainly capable of doing these sorts of things when Obama was in office, and the U.S. State Department and the White House were much more robust in their criticisms of Russia. But what I think does matter is that it makes it very difficult for, if you will, the Western community, in general—so, the United States, its allies in Europe, in Canada, in other places—to come up with some kind of a concerted policy response to Russia—right?—that would really support, at least provide moral support to those who would like to see a different future for the country. If anything, I think it’s demoralizing to the Russian opposition and to those who are fighting for their constitutional rights in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Greene, why local elections? Why—I mean, these are arrests around—

SAMUEL GREENE: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —people calling for representation in the Moscow City Council. Why is this so significant in Russia today?

SAMUEL GREENE: Well, there’s a couple of reasons, right? So, first of all, Moscow does have the largest concentration of sort of opposition supporters and potential opposition voters in the country. So, if there’s any part of Russia where they are likely to get some headway in elections, it is probably going to be Moscow. They have had representation on Moscow City Council before. Alexei Navalny himself ran for mayor back in 2014 and did a reasonable job of it—lost, of course, but put up a better show than many expected him to. And we have seen a lot of the opposition’s efforts really concentrated in Moscow as a result of that. They see that both, I think, as a way to get some momentum and to get some symbolic victories, but also really as a way to demonstrate to voters, maybe more broadly—right?—that they can have an impact.

I think that the problem for the opposition in Russia is not so much that most Russians think that the country is well governed. They understand the level of corruption. They understand the level of dysfunction. But most Russians wouldn’t believe that if you were to elect somebody else, that very much would change in their lives or in the way that the country is run. So the task for the opposition is, even if only on a local level, on a small scale, to begin to demonstrate to people that elections actually matter and can bring some change for the good. Right? Given that the Kremlin has not been able, through economic policy or social policy or other means, really, to engineer an improvement in Russians’ livelihoods over the last five or six years or so, I think they are concerned about the ability of the opposition to provide that kind of an example. Right? In the absence of a positive economic agenda from the Kremlin, I think, at this point, they’re really running on the lack of a viable alternative, and so they’re trying to prevent anything that would look like an alternative from emerging, even if it’s only symbolic and at the local level.

AMY GOODMAN: Samuel Greene, I want to thank you for being with us, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London. His book is just out, titled Putin v. the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia.

When we come back, we look at the historic protests in Colombia and around the world condemning the surge of lethal attacks on indigenous environmental leaders, more than 400 murdered in recent years. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Flame and Calling” [“Llama”] by the Colombian-American band MAKU Soundsystem, performing in our Democracy Now! studios. You can go to democracynow.org to see the full interview and music.

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