Aleksandr Verkhovsky: “I hope they understand that you can’t just tighten the screws.”

7 February 2021

Kommersant’s Olga Allenova interviews Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Centre

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Коммерсантъ]

What will the winter protests and the police crackdown lead to in Russia?

Following the harsh January crackdown on protesters in Moscow and other large Russian cities, the level of tension in society has risen. Over 10,000 people were arrested. Detention centres were flooded with detainees.  According to human rights defenders, detainees were not permitted to call their relatives, their lawyers were not allowed to see them, there was nowhere for them to sleep, and there were shortages of food and water. 

Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Sova research and analytical centre, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group award, was interviewed by Kommersant’s special correspondent Olga Allenova.  They discussed whether violations of civil rights by the police could lead to a radicalisation of the protest movement, why radical ultra-right groups were nowhere to be seen, what the authorities fear most — causing them to shut down the centre of Moscow and empty the capital — and, lastly, why the authorities have tightened up the legislation against foreign agents.

“You just need to figure out where riot police with truncheons are appropriate, and where they aren’t.”

Olga Allenova:  Protests took place all over Russia, and more than 10,000 people were arrested.  Will this not lead to radicalisation?

Aleksandr Verkhovsky:  No, just going to a rally is not radicalisation.  Beating up the police — that is radicalisation.  Were the January protests more aggressive than those of 2019?  Intuitively it seems that the answer is yes — I was at these protests, I watched them and, judging by the mood in the crowd, it seemed to me that people were angry.  But, at the same time, those actions did not lead to anything radical.  What exactly did the demonstrators do?  Sure, they clashed with the police, some of them even fought with the police, but they didn’t use any weapons — I mean, they had nothing to hand.  Yes, one man broke a car window, that was regrettable, but you couldn’t seriously call that a real attack on the police.

But are these isolated fights not evidence that intensity is increasing?

Fights do occur at mass rallies, but usually that happens when the police try to force the crowd back, and the crowd pushes back, trying not to give ground.  We don’t normally think of that as a fight.  It’s a typical form of behaviour of people in a mass crowd, when the two front rows on either side come face to face and both begin to push.

If then things really came to some kind of beating, then it was the police who were the first to use force.  They didn’t just push the crowd back: they began to beat them.

If we compare the rallies of 2019 and the current ones, the difference is that the young people who came to this year’s rallies have begun to push back more.  I’m not saying that this is a good thing, but it is not true to claim that they came out deliberately intending to beat the police.

You see, when we say that the protests were peaceful, it’s as if we’re trying to persuade another, more conservative part of our society that’s saying, “What do you mean they’re peaceful? They threw snowballs at the riot police, they smashed up a car.” However, when thousands of people gather together and the police use force to constrain them, it makes sense that there are incidents. But there were no organized groups at these protests ready to use force. People who come together to attack an enemy act differently. They are prepared for attack; they have the means at hand for a fight. There was none of that. Nobody tried to storm the prison; they approached to it to shout. The police drove them away from there – and the protesters started either trying to escape from the police who sought to detain them or to free other protestsers from police hands. And how did they fight? With their hands. That’s not what you’d call radicalization. There was no radicalization. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any in the future.

I’ve been reading what my friends have to say on social media, and I see how after mass detentions and arrests, a large number of people who were previously pro-government or who at least didn’t consider themselves the type to attend an unapproved protest, are changing their attitudes. People are writing about how they intend to take a stand against what is happening, that they will protest. What do you think, will these sentiments grow?

People will go to protests, but if you’re talking about radicalization, a transition to violence, then right now I don’t see the threat. But that could change. That’s why I think the government should exercise more caution. Of course when there are in fact radical groups that use violence, they must be stopped. And that’s important if they want to maintain a line that cannot be crossed. But what has happened many times in our country — in the Caucasus, for example, where one person commits violence against the authorities and in turn many people are punished as revenge — this is not a good means of deradicalization, since it has a direct negative effect. It’s been established several times — including in the Caucasus, where textbook instances have played out — that these actions strengthen radicals. I would not like a repeat of this in Moscow.

Generally, why are people becoming radicalised? Are they reacting to some sort of injustice? Is it more common amongst the youth?

It seems to me, generally people are reacting to injustice. The young are doing this more strongly. However, different groups can have varying concepts of justice. For example, football fans are people who are always ready to fight and aware that it’s an unsafe business. They are even prepared to fight with the police, and understand that for this they could spend time in prison. Such are the rules of the game that they accept. That is to say, the boundaries of what is acceptable to these people have shifted. Yet, if the police start to go outside the framework of typical actions, a feeling of injustice emerges. That is what is actually perceived as injustice – not a deviation from some sort of abstract rules, but a deviation from established norms. If, let’s say, the fans riot, and the police hit them with batons, everyone considers it okay. If they have done absolutely nothing, and the police thrash them with batons all the same, they will start to become resentful. For example, the police told them to go to the opposite side of the street, because the superior officers ordered the ferrying of this mass of fans from one place to another, the fans didn’t go and the police used force. Such cases happen from time to time in this environment. 

Similarly, participants of some radical political groups consider it absolutely normal that they are put in prison. But at the same time they consider it totally untypical if they are tortured, killed, or given an excessive prison sentence that is disproportionate to the act. So, the idea of injustice is not a singular value for all. And if we talk of people who have already set out on a radical path, or close to that, then they have a biased idea of norms, and the state should always bear that in mind. Yes, there are occasions when OMON with batons are appropriate, but they just need to think out, where they are appropriate and where they are not. Or, where OMON are appropriate, but, let’s say, without batons. Let these people stand menacingly, without brandishing batons. 

At the end of the day, why swing a baton at a peaceful protest?

In the temporary detention facilities, at the police stations where they took those arrested, the conditions were very bad. They took away people’s telephones, didn’t allow them to phone family, didn’t allow them to drink, eat, sleep, and didn’t let them out to go to the toilet. That is, they violated their basic rights. This caused great sense of protest, even amongst outside observers. Could all this radicalise those who went through these humiliations personally?

It could of course. Actually, history throws up many such examples.

You mean revolutionaries in tsarist Russia?

Yes, after all they include those who resented the length of sentences. The first generation of the People’s Will that were put in prison for agitation generally understood, most probably, that they could go to prison, because any agitation was illegal, but the retaliatory measures which they faced seemed absolutely excessive to them. A companion of Vera Zasulich was whipped in prison. She thought that he could be put in prison, but she didn’t think that he could be flogged. Therefore, she resorted to violence. It is one example of how varied people’s ideas of justice can be. 

It turns out that they are not thinking about what will happen tomorrow.

The authorities will think about tomorrow.  That’s the way any bureaucratic system generally works.  Any official, even if they are very conscientious, still has to worry about their career in the bureaucracy—so that they won’t be demoted, won’t be dismissed, won’t lose their bonus.  This means that, in addition to officials, there needs to be some kind of external factor, an external control mechanism— political, media-related, or public.  If all this ceased to exist, then the majority of officials would begin to make decisions without thinking about the future, or about how to prevent the protest movement from becoming radicalised.  This is doubtless what they are thinking about in the political department of the Presidential Administration.  And, given their position, that’s what they should be thinking about.  But the control mechanism was thought up not by them, but by some other people who do not think at all about global issues.  Then, they probably had some kind of meeting, a debriefing.  But these are all reactive measures, there is no strategy.  They delay the conflict, but this is always just a tactical decision for a single day.  Nobody knows what to do next time.

Did the authorities change their tactics in any way in January or February?

They did indeed change their tactics.  On 2 February, when Aleksei Navalny was sentenced, the security forces cordoned off certain parts of the city which they saw as key, and the protesters walked in circles round the centre until they were all cleared away.  So, on this occasion the security forces decided not to close off the whole city centre.  Clearly, they were planning ahead, Manezhnaya Square was closed off, the Kremlin was protected, but even so the centre was not blocked.

In your view, were the tough actions that the security forces took on 2 February spontaneous or were they pre-planned?

Tough actions were inevitable, because, as I already said, the authorities have not yet reached a strategic decision on how to deal with unauthorized marches.  Rather, they seem to react in a different way every time.  And they drive themselves into a corner, repeatedly declaring that these are illegal actions, and that illegal actions must be suppressed.  They themselves raise the bar for violence.  This is very similar to what happened with the Salafis in the Caucasus: the security forces believed that the Salafi doctrine fosters terrorism (I agree with this), meaning that all Salafists should be imprisoned in order there will be no terrorism.  But many members of this movement did not do anything illegal and neither did htey intend to do anything illegal.  Even so, they were arrested and imprisoned.  But this does not solve the problem, because such actions lead to the radicalisation of those who had not been radical until now.

The FSB says that now there are fewer terrorist attacks.  And that is true.  By using methods involving force, one can indeed achieve success for a certain period of time – even for several years – but it is not possible to achieve success in the long term.  You can lock up all the managers of Navalny’s headquarters and even put all the leading protest activists in prison, but new people will appear, people who have grown up in a new reality, who have seen how the police treat people at peaceful rallies, how they treat detainees.  And these people will be more radical.

So for now the actions taken by the authorities may seem to be successful, and officials can report on real results, which have indeed decreased here and there.  But we must not forget about the delayed effect of such actions.  Those who escaped without getting beaten up are likely to get beaten next time, or certainly at some future date.  Therefore, one cannot act only using methods involving force.  We need balance, prevention, and a real awareness of the threat.

[Read more in Russian]

Translated by Elizabeth Teague, Nina dePalma and Ruairidh Irwin.

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