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Analysis & Opinion
24.05.12 Take Me To Your Leaders
By Dan Peleschuk

Key opposition leaders Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov were released from prison on Thursday after serving 15-day-long sentences for their roles in leading the anti-Kremlin protests earlier this month. Their release not only serves as a reminder of the all-too-regular jail terms served by opposition leaders in Russia, but also raises the question of whether their brush-ups with the law boost their marketability and attract an even greater following.

Both Udaltsov, the radical leader of the Left Front Movement, and Navalny, the anticorruption whistleblower and protest poster boy, were detained on May 9 as part of a series of experimental protests – or “people’s strolls,” as the leaders had dubbed it. The plan to test the limits of the authorities’ tolerance for mass marches through downtown Moscow largely flopped and landed the daring activists in police custody.

The outspoken and highly visible leaders have been at the center of this and virtually every other action, helping to provide the necessary star and organizational power for the anti-Kremlin protests since early winter. Navalny and Udaltsov among them, they are the faces of the movement whose Twitter feeds middle-class “Internet hamsters” turn to for the latest updates. And when they’re jailed – especially on allegedly trumped-up charges – it seems to only impassion their followers, further cementing the Kremlin’s image as stubbornly authoritarian and utterly unwilling to tolerate dissent.

On Thursday, as Udaltsov walked into freedom shortly after midnight, he was greeted with a wave of applause from a crowd of supporters chanting his name. The hero of the moment, he played along and met the warm welcome with his usual steely rhetoric: "All attempts by the illegitimate authorities to intimidate us are futile, because we know that we are in the right," he told journalists. "We will win." Navalny, too, was released later that morning in high spirits to his own cheering crowd. “If we have to go to jail another two or 22 times, we will do this,” he said outside the jailhouse, RIA Novosti reported.

But as they – and Solidarity activist Ilya Yashin, currently jailed until May 26 for his role in the “Occupy” movement – soon return to their daily duties of keeping the protest movement afloat and its followers informed, the question is how far people will follow leaders who regularly land in prison. The point seems even more urgent when factoring in the disagreements among demonstrators and concerns that part of the movement may be radicalizing, not least through the participation of Udaltsov and his coterie of hard-nosed followers.

A large part of the recent sit-in movement, first at Chistye Prudy park and then at Kudrinskaya Square, seemed aimed at proving precisely that the movement doesn’t necessarily need a leader. Indeed, it proved just as much, as those demonstrations swelled with participants while Udaltsov and Navalny sat behind bars. During “Occupy Abai” at Chistye Prudy, particularly, demonstrators seemed more enthralled by their comrades’ lectures and song circles than when high-profile opposition politicians, such as Ilya Ponomaryov and Dmitry Gudkov, turned up to chat with the media.

Sasha, an 18-year-old university student who helped coordinate the activities at the demonstration, reinforced that perception when she insisted that few of her fellow protesters were willing to stand behind a single figure, also noting that the self-styled town hall meetings among ordinary citizens far outweigh anyone else’s high-profile clout. “I want people to understand that they don’t necessarily need a single leader – someone like Navalny, for instance – because that person could turn out to be worse that Putin,” she said. “And it really doesn’t matter who it might be, because none of them are particularly great.”

But there’s also the symbolic value of playing the persecuted figure, oppressed by a regime which seeks to muzzle any outward discontent. Russia’s own history, experts suggest, is studded with examples of politically-motivated jailing that in one way or another leads to turmoil: the Tsarist imprisonment of Bolshevik revolutionaries and the Soviet oppression of writers and human rights activists are but two such examples.

Political expert Sam Greene, a professor at the New Economic School, said the regime’s imprisonment of top opposition leaders can easily result in an even greater level of discontent. He points to the South African anti-apartheid movement that catapulted Nelson Mandela to fame: “One of the things people talk about in the movement is, ‘we need our Mandela.’ But Mandela became Mandela in jail,” he said. “That was a formative experience for him, and it was also a formative experience for the movement.”

And while many demonstrators are not willing to throw their support behind one opposition leader or another, there may be a larger lesson to be learned – one not for the leaders themselves, but for the greater movement. Greene added that the goal for the budding anti-Kremlin opposition is to “learn how to have leadership that is symbolic and important, but then to be able to function when the leadership is not physically present.” It’s something, he said, they’ve “clearly been able to do.”
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