#ElectionWatch: Protests Across Russia

Demonstrators call for boycott of March elections

Live tweets of detentions in Murmansk, northern Russia. Left: “About 10 people detained.” Center: “….” Right: “Around 25–30 people detained.” (Source: Twitter / @MMK_____.)

On January 28, supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny took to the streets across the country to call for a boycott of presidential elections planned for March 18. Organizers argued the election outcome remains pre-determined in favor of current President Vladimir Putin, who has been either president or prime minister since 1999.

Under the slogan “Забастовка” (translated from Russian: “strike”), Navalny’s supporters organized events in 115 Russian cities, together with Berlin, New York, and Prague.

Most of the media coverage, which was considerable, focused on events in Moscow, where Navalny himself was arrested. @DFRLab also tracked events across the immense spread of Russia, reaching from the far east to the west.

Arrests and Clashes in Moscow

Moscow was the epicenter of the protests, where Russian police raided Navalny’s Moscow office during a live broadcast covering the event. A number of police officers showed up at the office door on 08:59 (UTC+3) demanding the door to be opened. Since the employees of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation did not open the door, police officers used an electric saw and at 09:37 (UTC+3) stormed the office. These images were posted on Navalny’s Twitter feed.

Police officers storming Navalny’s Office. Left: (Source: Twitter / @rrubanov); Center: (Source: Twitter / @rrubanov); Right: (Source: Twitter / Alexey Navalny).

Once the police got inside, the live broadcast was interrupted. Police accused one of the show presenters, Dimitry Nizovtsev, of having a bomb in his phone. The cameras which were filming the scene live, show Nizovtsev being arrested.

Police officers interrupt live broadcast and arrest journalist Dimitry Nizovtsev. (Source: YouTube / Алексей Навальный ); Right: (Source: Twitter / @rrubanov)

A few hours later, a peaceful protest began in the center of Moscow. Police arrested Navalny around 14:30 (UTC+3), soon after he joined the protesters marching down Tverskaya Street (Тверская улица), a few hundred meters from the Kremlin.

As he walked toward the Kremlin, officers grabbed him and dragged him to into a waiting police van. Authorities said the protest was illegal, he was charged with violating demonstration rules, and he could face another month-long jail term.

Navalny being arrested. Top Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Bottom Left: (Source: Twitter / @navalny); Top Right: (Source: GoogleMaps); Bottom Right: (Source: Twitter / @navalny); Bottom Left: (Source: Twitter / @navalny).

Soon after Navalny was arrested, a number of protesters started gathering in Pushkin Square, near Tverskaya Street. They shouted, “Freedom to Navalny.”

Protesters in Pushkin square. Top Left: (Source: Twitter / @AlexKokcharov); Bottom Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Twitter / @AlexKokcharov).

Another video appeared at 6:24 (UTC+3) and showed events near Moscow’s Manege.

A large group of protesters appeared to be clashing with police, who were lining up the police cars in order to stop the march. The clashes were very minor, as most protesters ran away as officers tried to detain them. At the time of this report, there were at least 243 detained people in Moscow.

Protesters clash with police. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Twitter / @HenryJFoy)

Petersburg: Many People, Little Violence

Unlike Moscow, the protest in St. Petersburg was more peaceful.

According to information in the official event page on the Russian social network VKontakte (VK or ВКонтакте), the protest started at 14:00 (UTC+3) and ended before 18:00 (UTC+3).

Navalny’s local office provided live broadcast of the rally for almost four hours.

The majority of the participants were young. They shouted slogans like:

Putin is a thief!

Strike!

The fourth term — jail time!

This is our city! Putin’s gang to a court!

We are the power!

Russia without Putin!

An older generation was also present. A few social media users posted an image of an old lady with a poster featuring popular Russian musician Vladimir Vysotsky.

Text translated from Russian: “Save Russia! Join clever and good forces! Impeach president Putin! Facism is when a government is raising a nation of war.” Left (Source: VK); right (Source: Twitter).

After a gathering on a Proletarnoy Diktaturi Square, the crowd went to Tavricheskiy Sad. According to the post in official event page on VK, people marched routes on Taurian, Tverskaya, Kirochnaya, and Shpalernaya streets.

(Source: Google / @DFRLab)

According to the YouTube live broadcast record, at about 15:00 (UTC+3), special police forces arrived, blocked Tverskaya street, and forced part of the crowd to go back to Proletarnoy Diktaturi Square. The person behind the camera reported one or two detentions.

A geotagged VK post by Renat Ershov confirmed the presence of the special police force during the protest.

(Source: VK / Renat Ershov)

According to a live report by Russian media outlet Rosbalt, a group of volunteers called “Help For The Detained” reported about 15 arrests during the protest, while the official police sources told Rosbalt they conducted no arrests.

The coordinator of Navalny’s office in St. Petersburg Dennis Mihaylov disappeared during the protest. According to media outlet Mediazona, he stopped answering calls of his colleagues at about 15:00 (UTC+3).

He was detained by the authorities. After 20:00 (UTC+3), Mihaylov tweeted he was released.

According to the live broadcast, posts on the official VK event page, and a report by independent Russian media Novaya Gazeta, the rally resembled a street festival. People moved down the streets that were not blocked by special police forces from Proletarnoy Diktaturi Square, to Tavricheskiy Sad, then towards Dvorcovaya Square, and eventually to Vosstaniye Square.

(Source: Google / @DFRLab)

Though the official part of the protest was over, the Twitter account of Navalny’s office in St. Petersburg encouraged followers to continue speaking out against the elections and join as election observers.

Vladivostok: No Snow?

In Vladivostok, in Russia’s far east, organizers reported that “hundreds” of demonstrators turned out to march through the city, and posted a number of pictures of the event.

(Source: VK / Zabastovka_Vl)

The above image found on VK of protests was taken by the Monument to the Fighters for Soviet Power in the Far East, situated on Vladivostok’s Central Square, as the below Google image confirms.

(Source: Google / Institut Konfutsiya)

The organizers said their access to the Central Square was blocked by snow-ploughs and tractors. Local news outlet prim.news (named after the Primorskiy Kray, the region where Vladivostok is located) confirmed the fact and reported the square had been fenced off and that locals had been warned to exercise caution because of “heavy equipment working.” The site also pointed out that “there was no snow on the square.”

A photo posted on the organizers’ VK page showed the tractors and snowploughs lined up close to the monument, together with orange fencing and an absence of snow or ice.

Photo of the central square in Vladivostok. Note the orange fencing (marked with orange lines) and the snow-ploughs to the left of the shot. (Source: VK / Zabastovka_Vl)

A separate photo posted by a group called “Владивосток выбирает забастовку” (translated from Russian: “Vladivostok elects a strike”) showed a close-up of the fencing with a sheet of paper taped to it, which warned “Attention: Heavy equipment at work.”

Translated from Russian: “Attention. Heavy equipment at work.” (Source: VK / Владивосток выбирает забастовку)

Prim.news provided live updates of the proceedings as the protesters marched through the town and back to the main square, “accompanied by noisy tractors,” before dispersing. There were no reports of arrests.

Irkutsk — No Organizer?

In Irkutsk, Siberia, radio station Ekho Moskvy reported between 300 and 400 demonstrators gathered at the city’s 50th Anniversary of the October Revolution Square (площадь 50-летия Октября).

(Source: ekho.msk.ru)

Again, we can confirm the location from Google Maps: note the “Меха Сибири” building in the background to the left, and the two tall buildings in the background to the right.

(Source: Google / Truyện audio)

Ekho Moskvy quoted the organizer of the demonstration, Sergei Gorkunov, who said he had been detained by police on the way to the event, and his car searched for drugs. However, Gorkunov arrived just as the event was wrapping up, together with the banner and stickers he had been transporting. Ekho Moskvy’s headline ran, “In Irkutsk, the ‘Voters’ strike’ went ahead without its organizer.’”

Perhaps of most significance, in terms of the forthcoming election, is that the Irkutsk organizers urged attendees to sign up as election observers, although it was unclear how many did so.

The highlighted text reads in Russian, “One of the tasks of today’s meeting was to sign up observers for the March 18 ‘elections.’ We will be in touch with all those who did so in the coming days. If anybody couldn’t, for any reason, no big deal. Write to us at sarapulov@navalny2018.org.” (Source: VK / Команда Навального | Иркутск)

Other than Gorkunov’s problems, there were no reports of arrests.

Kemerovo — 30 Arrests

Demonstrators in Kemerovo, further west in Siberia, were less fortunate. The Navalny team coordinator in the city, Kseniya Pakhomova, tweeted that she had been detained and urged the city to catch fire.

Translated from Russian: “They’ve arrested me. Dragged me from a taxi. Kemerovo, burn! #Забастовка.” (Source: Twitter / @ks_pakhomova.)

The tweet was striking for its impact: 453 retweets and over 1,400 likes. A machine scan of the post suggested that it was not boosted by automated bots, but by genuine users. One of its first retweets was from Navalny’s account, which has over 2 million followers, explaining the traffic.

Screenshot from Navalny’s timeline showing the retweet. (Source: Twitter / Alexey Navalny)

According to the Kemerovo group’s VK page, police then moved in on the demonstration in the city center and arrested around 20 demonstrators, who linked hands in response. The arrestees then posted selfies from inside the police wagon to show that they were unharmed.

(Source: VK / Zabastovka_Kmr)

In an update posted later the same day, the organizers said all the detainees except Pakhomova were released, but would be expected in court the following morning for administrative punishment. The group also posted a photo of a young demonstrator holding up a defiant hand-written sign, apparently from inside a police building: “Our madhouse is voting for Putin.”

Translated from Russian: “URGENT: ALL DETAINEES HAVE BEEN RELEASED, except coordinator Ksenia Pakhomova. All detainees will be in court tomorrow at 10am. You have to come to the session at Kemerovo city central district court (Chernyakhovski street 2a). Don’t forget your passport!” (Source: VK / Zabastokvka_Kmr)

Novosibirsk — No Signatures ?

A little to the west of Kemerovo, in the city of Novosibirsk, an estimated 1,000 people turned out in temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius and a strong wind.

Organizers posted video and photos of marchers passing under an archway into the Veterans’ Alley (Аллея Ветеранов) on Red Prospect (Красный проспект), in the center of the city.

Left: Demonstrators in Novosibirsk; note the archway and the tall building behind. (source: VK / Zabastovka_Nsk). Right: A photograph of Veterans’ Alley from livejournal; note the arch and building. (Source: neferjournal.livejournal.com).

Organizers said that no demonstrators were arrested during the event, but that police detained one man afterwards for carrying a poster, which allegedly did not match the demonstration’s declared purpose. The banner showed an image of Putin and the phrase, “The fish rots from the head,” a common Russian saying used to mean that corruption starts at the top.

Translated from Russian: “The police detained one of the participants in our meeting because of a poster which did not match the declared theme. Our lawyer is with him. The poster has been confiscated. To judge by all appearances, he’ll be booked under part 5, paragraph 20.2 of the Administrative Code.” (Source: VK / Zabastovka_Nsk)

In sharp contrast to events in Irkutsk, the meeting in Novosibirsk did not ask participants to sign up. Indeed, the organizers posted a message on VK, which warned that an unknown man had been going around asking participants to sign and advised them not to.

Translated from Russian: “Attention! Unknown people claiming to be members of Aleksey Navalny’s team in Novosibirsk are collecting signatures, allegedly to support the voters’ strike. Never give any signatures, since the Navalny team doesn’t conduct such collections.” (Source: VK / Zabastovka_Nsk)

Murmansk — Arrests

In Murmansk, in Russia’s far north, the NGO OVD-Info, which monitors police activity, reported police detained 25 demonstrators, and that they used some degree of force.

The demonstrators’ difficulties appear to have begun when they found the square, which they had selected for the meeting taped off — allegedly, again, for snow clearing. They announced that the demonstration, which had not been given official permission, would go ahead anyway.

Translated from Russian: “Urgent. Follow updates on our social media feeds. They say that the square has been taped off. In that case, since they don’t want to let us in, we’ll go into the center. Meeting point: ‘Five corners’ square at 14:00.” (Source: VK / Zabastovka_,Mur)

The Murmansk team provided little in the way of breaking updates, but a Twitter user called @MMK_____ posted images of events.

The tweet reads in Russian: “There were three policemen here just now, but they’ve gone.” The paper reads, “Access prohibited. Mechanized clearing.” (Source: Twitter / @MMK_____)

We can confirm the location of the right-hand image from this shot from Google; note the white, two-story structure and the shape of the tree behind it to the right.

(Source: Google / Aleksey Burda)

Posts from this user confirmed demonstrators moved to Five Corners Square (площадь «Пять углов»), although they appear to have been few in number.

(Source: Twitter / @MMK_____)

Again, we confirmed the location from Google, with the “Azimut Arktika” building in the background.

(Source: Google / Dmitry Melikov)

The user kept on tweeting as police moved in and began detaining demonstrators.

Translated from Russian at left: “A few people have been detained.” Right: “….” (Source: Twitter / @MMK_____.)

Again, we confirmed the location as Five Corners Square by examining the buildings in the background.

(Source: Google / Natalya Alimova.)

The user continued live-tweeting as more demonstrators were dragged away and forced into police wagons. By the account of this user, around 25–30 people were detained; the background of these images is sufficient to confirm the location.

Translated from Russian at left: “About 10 people detained.” Center, “….”. Translated from Russian at right: “Around 25–30 people detained.” (Source: Twitter / @MMK_____.)

According to OVD-Info, 25 people were detained, six of them minors; all were released, and most were charged with administrative offenses. The website quoted protest organizer Violetta Grudina as saying that 300–350 people attended the demonstration.

Makhachkala

In Makhachkala, in the Republic of Dagestan on the Caspian Sea, events appear to have passed off peacefully — unlike the last major anti-corruption demonstrations, in March 2017, when 156 people were reportedly arrested.

Translated from Russian: “Makhachkalans, well done! At last things went the way they should have done here (apart from the fact that I froze :-)), and the police did their job, i.e. didn’t interfere, so a special thanks for that. The albums are open as always, upload your photos and videos. And don’t forget to join Dagestan’s group of observers!” (Source: VK / Zabastovka_mhk)

Turnout appears to have been low, with online comments putting the number at between 50 and 100. A Periscope video of the event also showed a small group being addressed from the steps of the Avarskiy Teatr.

(Source: VK / Zabastovka_mhk)

We compared the image with Google imagery of the theater to confirm the location.

(Source: Google / Mourad Bahmudov)

Conclusion

Sunday’s demonstrations were not massive in scale, but they showed how far Navalny’s message has spread beyond the core urban centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. They also showed his team’s success in mobilizing people across Russia, even in temperatures well below zero and in the face of legal repercussions.

Official responses to the demonstrations varied. Makhachkala, which saw large-scale arrests in March 2017, stood out for the peaceful police response, albeit with a significantly smaller number of demonstrators. In Vladivostok, the authorities’ activity appeared limited to closing off the main square, but not otherwise hindering demonstrators.

Elsewhere, local police in cities such as Irkutsk were selective, detaining the organizers but allowed the demonstrations to go ahead. In Murmansk, Kemerovo, and Moscow, local authorities were more forceful, with dozens or hundreds of arrests.

Perhaps the most important factor was the attempt in a number of locations to sign up election observation teams. If Navalny’s campaign is able to mobilize observers on the nationwide scale it managed for this protest, and if they manage to observe and report, it may shine a significant light on the conduct of the election itself.


Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Lukas Andriukaitis and Nika Aleksejeva are Digital Forensic Research Associates at @DFRLab.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.