MOSCOW – A top ally of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Tuesday announced a new anti-government protest, urging residents of big cities to briefly gather in residential courtyards this weekend with their cellphone flashlights on.
Navalny strategist Leonid Volkov said the protest will start at 8 p.m. Sunday and last 15 minutes. The new rally format — similar to the tactics opposition supporters employed during protests in neighboring Belarus — could prevent Russian riot police from interfering and allow anyone to participate, Volkov wrote in a Facebook post.
The protest will coincide with Valentine's Day, and Volkov titled his announcement “Love is stronger than fear.”
“You will raise your phone flashlights — and someone, maybe, will bring candles — and form a heart shape with them ... You will take a picture of it from above, from one of the apartments, and post it on Instagram. Let’s have social media feeds filled with thousands of shining hearts from dozens of Russian cities,” Volkov wrote. “No OMON (riot police), no fear.”
Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption investigator and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.
His arrest and jailing sparked nationwide protests, with tens of thousands of people rallying across Russia for two weekends in a row in the largest outpouring of discontent in years.
Russian authorities responded with a harsh crackdown. More than 11,000 people have been detained, and hundreds were handed jail terms. Several of Navalny’s close allies face criminal charges and are under house arrest.
Last week, a Moscow court ruled that while Navalny was recovering in Germany, he violated the probation terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction and ordered him to serve two years and eight months in prison. Even before that ruling, Navalny rejected the 2014 conviction political persecution and the European Court of Human Rights called it “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable.”
In the wake of the heavy police crackdown, Volkov said that protests should pause until spring, as trying to maintain rallies every weekend would only lead to many more arrests.
However, on Tuesday he cited the need to “adopt something that is stronger than fear” of repressions and to hold a demonstration that police wouldn't be able to derail.
“We have already become the majority, but Putin divides us by (riot police) cordons so that we can't see each other and see how many of us there are. We need to find a way to overcome that,” Volkov wrote.
Asked whether the opposition's call to gather in courtyards can be viewed as inciting unauthorized protests, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was “hard to say," but assured reporters that if someone in Russia violates the law, they will be held accountable by law enforcement.
Navalny’s arrest and jailing heightened tensions between Russia and the European Union. European leaders demanded the release of the opposition leader, and the Kremlin has said it won’t listen to Western criticism of Navalny’s sentencing and police action against his supporters.
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Tuesday charged that Navalny's allies were “agents of influence” of NATO and that they changed their mind about putting protests on pause after receiving instructions from the bloc's members “on how to be ‘smarter' about continuing the subversive work.”
Zakharova pointed to an online conference with EU, U.S. and U.K. officials that Volkov and another Navalny associate, Vladimir Ashurkov, took part in on Monday.
Volkov said on Twitter on Monday that sanctions against individual Russian officials and tycoons were discussed at the event and called it "a sore spot” for Russian officials.