Russian police raided the homes of at least 10 leading opposition figures today in a move widely perceived by the opposition as an intimidation tactic on the eve of what organizers are billing as the biggest-ever anti-Putin rally, scheduled to take place tomorrow on Moscow's central Pushkin Square.
Those whose apartments were searched included anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who live-Tweeted the raid on his apartment by more than a dozen police. He said they refused to allow his lawyer into the building for several hours while they went through everything, hauling away all his computer equipment and flash drives, children's photos, and even a T-shirt that depicts a roguish-looking bear looting a map of Russia, a picture of which he sent out via Instagram. (The symbol of the ruling party, United Russia, is a bear.)
A spokesman for Russia's Interior Ministry, Vladimir Markin, told journalists the searches were connected to an ongoing investigation of "disorders" that took place during a May 6 opposition rally – actually an attempt to stage a sit-down strike on a bridge by a tiny minority of protesters – on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration, which resulted in scores of injuries and more than 600 arrests when riot police charged a mostly peaceful crowd with tear gas and batons.
"All in all, the investigation has more than 10 searches at different sites planned," Mr. Markin said. "Individuals whose homes have been searched have been summoned to the investigative committee’s office for legal procedures on June 12."
But opposition sympathizers point out that some of those targeted by police today, including Navalny and Udaltsov, have already served time in prison over the past month as punishment for their alleged role in the May 6 disturbances. The main evidence used to convict them was the fact that their names appeared on the list of organizers who obtained the permit for the rally.
One protest leader still at large, journalist Olga Romanova, used her Facebook page today as a clearing house for all the latest information on the police raids. "News from the battlefront: police are besieging the home of Alexei Sakhnin in (the Moscow-area town of) Zhukovsky," she posted around noon. Later she wrote that police arrived in force at the Moscow apartment of liberal PARNAS party leader Boris Nemtsov, but he had apparently flown the coop and was nowhere to be found. In the evening she announced that police were raiding the home of Navalny's wife's parents.
"This is all an obvious attempt to frighten people away from turning up at the rally, and to put psychological pressure on the activists," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a long time left-wing activist and director of the independent Institute for Globalization and Social Movement Studies. "The atmosphere is much more tense than it appears on the surface. It may well be that the authorities are not united in their views on how to deal with the situation, and the population is angry. The way the police are behaving is getting people angrier."
Last week, Russia's State Duma rushed through a law that drastically increases fines and other penalties for organizers of protest meetings and for ordinary participants charged with any kind of infraction. The law whipped through two Duma readings, was approved by the Federation Council (upper house of parliament) and signed by Putin in just three days. (The main features of the law can be seen here.)
Tomorrow's planned demonstration is the latest in a series that began last December to specifically protest against alleged electoral fraud, but more fundamentally appears to be animated by a full spectrum of middle-class grievances against bureaucratic unaccountability, political autocracy, corruption, and the lack of legal equality in post-Soviet Russia.
Most of those who come out to the rallies do not seem to be led, or even inspired, by the opposition leaders who were the objects of today's raids. Most past rallies have been largely self-organized through social media like Facebook and the Russian-language VKontakte, so it appears likely that today's show of police force – which was extensively reported on state-run TV channels – was aimed at influencing the public mood.
"I'm afraid we can see a lot of arrests [at tomorrow's rally] because the authorities have not moved fast enough to adapt to the situation," Grigory Tyumanov, a correspondent with the Moscow daily Kommersant wrote in a blog post today. "On the contrary, the government seems to be doing everything it can to aggravate the situation. If they didn't employ repressive methods, these demonstrations would probably fade away. But the strategists in the Kremlin are making sure that the protest leaders will look like martyrs."