Sunday the 21st of September witnessed according to some the largest anti-Kremlin rally since the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine started in April of this year. Thousands of demonstrators gathered in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities to protest against what they say is a covert Russian war in eastern Ukraine. The marches coincided with the United Nations’ (UN) annual International Peace Day.
According to SONAR, an independent monitoring group, more than 26,000 protesters gathered on the streets for the Moscow march for peace. People carried banners reading among others: “Putin, I’m sick of your lies,” “Don’t shoot our brothers” and “I don’t want a war with Ukraine.”
Sunday's march was organised by longstanding opposition parties including Yabloko, Solidarity and Parnas, as well as newcomers like the Party of Progress led by popular anti-corruption campaigner and blogger Alexey Navalny, who is currently under house arrest as part of what many see as a politically motivated criminal case.
Some protesters carried Russian and Ukrainian flags. Two such protesters, Vadim Kryuchkov and Varvara Daryevskaya, although sceptical about whether these marches would actually change the Kremlin's course, felt it was their duty to express their opposition against Russia’s aggressive behaviour. Kryuchkov, originally from a town near Luhansk, said he supported the greater local autonomy for the region but was against Russia sending troops and arms to eastern Ukraine. “We want Ukraine to see that there are people in Russia who don't support the war,” Kryuchkov said.
The protest in Moscow happened peacefully, despite the presence of pro-Russian separatist supporters along the route who were holding flags of the Donetsk and Luhansk self-proclaimed people's republics. Some of them threw raw eggs at the demonstrators, but overall there were only minor incidents and there were no reports of serious violence or arrests. Counter-protests were however simultaneously held in Moscow in support of Russia’s stance on the Ukrainian crisis. Dozens of people flung fake American dollars at the anti-war protesters, suggesting to shift the blame for the Ukrainian crisis onto the West instead of the Kremlin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government have always denied sending Russian troops and weapons across the border with Ukraine in support of the pro-Russian separatists. Those claims are increasingly met with scepticism both within and outside of Russia. On the 12th of September the European Union’s (EU) new sanctions against Moscow entered into force as a response to the Kremlin’s growing role in escalating the conflict in Ukraine that started in April of this year. Since the signature of the cease-fire on the 5th of September and the creation of a 30-km wide buffer zone between the warring forces on the 19th of September, violence has decreased considerably.
Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund, also engaged with conducting opinion polls, found an interesting dynamic in a recently held survey. It shows that Russians travelling abroad frequently hold different opinions on, among others, the Russian import ban of foods from Europe, than Russians who only rarely leave the country. The former group – although still quite large - is considerably more critical and less convinced of Moscow’s policies than the latter group. Concerning the Kremlin’s embargo on certain European agricultural products, 49% of the respondents who travel abroad frequently agreed with this embargo against almost 64% of respondents who rarely leave Russia.
The Anti-Corruption Fund also noticed a sharp decrease in the number of Russians who support their country’s military involvement in the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine. The percentage of respondents that was definitively in favour of the Kremlin’s (military) approach in Ukraine dropped from 36% in March to 13% in August.
Sources: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, The Guardian, The Moscow Times, Al Jazeera, European Forum, Vedomosti, NewsRu.com (1), (2)