Russian opposition flickers with support for jailed Navalny protester


  • World
  • Thursday, 29 Feb 2024

Andrei Vyazov, a demonstrator, holds up a banner reading "Navalny 20!8" as he protests the death of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Krasnodar, Russia, February 16, 2024, in this screen grab obtained from a video obtained by Reuters. Video Obtained by REUTERS/via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) - One person approached the Russian protester and shook his hand, thanking him for his courage. Another headed to the shops to buy hygiene products, food and books to bring to him in detention.

Andrei Vyazov was jailed on Feb. 16 in the southern city of Krasnodar, one of more than 400 protesters detained at events across Russia in memory of Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin's fiercest critic who died this month in an Arctic penal colony.

Despite the machinery of state working around the clock to snuff out any sign of dissent over Russia's invasion of Ukraine and, more recently, the death in detention of leading dissident Navalny, signs of opposition still flicker.

"We are all afraid, but now is the moment when we are in solidarity with each other," said Anastasia Panchenko, a former Navalny staff member from Krasnodar who is now living in Tbilisi, Georgia. "People are ready to help no matter what."

Russia's Interior Ministry did not immediately respond to questions about the arrests since Navalny's death.

Russian authorities viewed Navalny and his supporters as extremists with links to the CIA intelligence agency who are seeking to destabilise Russia. They have outlawed his movement, forcing many of his followers to flee abroad.

Vyazov's arrest prompted small acts of kindness from Krasnodar's tight-knit activist community, some of whom have been jailed themselves over the years.

Although she has never met him, when Panchencko heard of Vyazov's actions she began collecting money on Telegram to send to his family while he serves out a 14-day sentence.

"Andrei is the only breadwinner in the family, with a grandmother who cannot walk after a serious operation and an elderly mother in his care," she told Reuters.

In a few days, the fund raised more than 150,000 roubles ($1,610), about three times the average monthly salary in Krasnodar. More than 200 people have donated to the fund, Panchenko said, including many still living in Russia.

Though his approval ratings were dwarfed by President Vladimir Putin's, Navalny offered some urban, educated Russians an alternative to the veteran leader.

But Russia's opposition is weak and fragmented as Putin prepares for an election in March that opposition groups call an "anointment" that will keep him in power until at least 2030.

'OPPOSE THE TIDE'

In the biggest wave of arrests at political events in Russia since September 2022, when thousands were detained for protesting against the Kremlin's mobilisation plans, 404 people were arrested in 40 Russian cities between Feb. 16-19, according to rights group OVD-Info.

The organisation, one of Russia's biggest legal defence groups that supports thousands of protesters and opposition figures, said about 150 were placed under formal administrative arrest, meaning short jail sentences of up to 14 days.

In Vyazov's case, the 41-year-old engineer headed to a local memorial to the victims of fascism when he heard of Navalny's death, as hundreds of others did across Russia.

But unlike mourners who came to lay flowers, Vyazov held up a sign reading "Navalny 20!8", a reference to the year of the opposition leader's failed presidential bid.

Vyazov had regularly attended protests in Krasnodar, according to his lawyer, Alexei Avanesyan.

"He was very brave," said Yakov, a local in Krasnodar who saw Vyazov at the vigil. He declined to give his full name because of the risk of a backlash from authorities. "For police, displaying such a poster is like a rag to a bull."

In video footage Yakov shot that night, a dozen onlookers watched silently as Vyazov clutched his sign in front of the memorial strewn with fresh flowers.

Moved by Vyazov's courage, Yakov approached him to shake his hand. He later posted about Vyazov's arrest in an online support group for Krasnodar activists, alerting Panchenko.

The day after his arrest, a Krasnodar court sentenced Vyazov to 14 days in a special detention centre for "demonstrating extremist symbols" - the maximum punishment allowed by law - according to court documents Avanesyan shared with Reuters.

He is due to be released on Friday, the day Navalny is to be buried in Moscow. Avanesyan has appealed.

Two days after Vyazov's arrest, a local woman named Yulia waited an hour in the freezing cold to be let into the detention facility, bearing coffee, tea, instant noodles and sweets.

She also brought Vyazov copies of Yevgeny Zamyatin's dystopian science fiction work "We" - at his request - and the novel "Mother Night" by American author Kurt Vonnegut.

"Not many people are ready to visit the police and do what I do," said the 34-year-old IT worker. "I'm doing my best to become a better human even when that means to oppose the tide."

Through his lawyer Avanesyan, Vyazov has expressed gratitude for the packages and support.

He is being held in a basement cell and "has not seen sunlight" since his detention, and his face has broken out in an attack of psoriasis, said Avanesyan, who saw him recently.

"Every room has a window, and his relatives have brought him medicines," a representative from the detention centre told Reuters by phone, declining further comment.

Vyazov is worried about what will happen to him when he is released this week.

"He doesn't know what the consequences will be" for his protest, Avanesyan said. "Of course, he is afraid."

(Editing by Mike Collett-White and Alex Richardson)

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