Top Putin opponent urges Russia protesters to act ‘for yourself and your future’
iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) — Russian police arrested a top opponent of President Vladimir Putin on Sunday as thousands of people around the country protested against a lack of competition in presidential elections planned for this spring.
Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption campaign who has become Russia’s most prominent opponent of Putin, was seized and dragged violently into a van by police as he tried to join one of the protests that he had called for in central Moscow.
“I was detained,” Navalny tweeted in Russian after his arrest. “It does not matter.”
He added, “You don’t go for me, but for yourself and your future.”
Navalny also tweeted a video of his arrest and photos from the protests.
The protests, which had been expected in 100 Russian cities, were called by Navalny after he was blocked from the election that is scheduled for March and in which Putin faces no substantial opposition.
In response, Navalny has called for a boycott of the vote. Sunday’s protests were meant to back the proposed vote boycott while also tapping into discontent around official corruption and economic malaise. The protests were the first major demonstrations since Russia’s election campaigning began.
People joined demonstrations from Murmansk in the far north of Russia to the port of Vladivostok, which is 11 time zones away. Protests ranged in size from a couple dozen to several hundred people.
In many locations, the protesters were braving blisteringly cold temperatures; one of the coldest sites was in the far eastern city of Yakutsk, where it was 49 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
In Moscow, a few thousand people streamed down the city’s central avenue, gathering at Pushkin Square around half a mile from the Kremlin. Several hundred stood there, chanting, “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin.” Some carried joke signs mocking Putin. One man who was dressed in a Putin mask and wearing a crown walked around the crowd with a bucket asking for “taxes” and telling people he would “take everything there was.”
Police arrested at least 240 people around the protests across Russia, according to OVD-Info, an independent group that monitors arrests.
There was a markedly heavy police presence in Moscow ahead of the protest, with dozens of riot vans and empty buses parked waiting in case of arrests. Camouflage tents and an army-style field kitchen had been set up near the square.
Hours before the Moscow protest began, police raided the offices of Navalny’s organization, the Fund for Combating Corruption (FBK). Police claimed there was a bomb threat at the building, a common tactic used against opposition groups here.
Officers broke in the door to the office as Navalny’s staff conducted a live broadcast on his popular YouTube channel chronicling the protests. When officers arrived, the staff struggled to read their bulletin over the sound of sawing metal as police cut through the door into their studio. Police searched Navalny’s campaign offices in several cities ahead of the protests.
Compared with previous protests, however, the security forces were little used. Major protests in March and June saw large-scale arrests, with over a thousand detained in Moscow alone. This time, less than two dozen were detained in Moscow as police largely left protesters untouched. Police ordered demonstrators to disperse but did not move to seize them as at previous rallies.
Eventually, part of the Moscow crowd — a few hundred people — began marching in a column toward the Kremlin, chanting “Down with the tsar.” Police permitted the protesters to get within around 1,000 feet, or 300 meters, of the Kremlin before most of the column turned back of its own accord.
The softer approach suggested authorities have adapted their tactics to Navalny, avoiding the mass arrests that had made global headlines last year and instead focusing on detaining the protests’ organizers. Demonstrations called by Navalny on Putin’s birthday in October also saw few arrests.
Sunday’s protests were seen as an important test for Navalny’s significance during the election, now that he has been barred.
Over the past year, Navalny has built a large grassroots organization around the country that claims to have 200,000 volunteers. His investigations into alleged corruption by top officials and members of Putin’s inner circle, presented as irreverent videos, have garnered him a big online following. A series of protests that he led last year were the biggest Russia had seen in half a decade.
Navalny had demanded that he be allowed to run in the election against Putin. But in December, Russia’s election commission refused to register his candidacy over a fraud conviction that is widely viewed as trumped up. Navalny has said he was blocked because the Kremlin is afraid of allowing him to compete.
The boycott called by Navalny is intended to weaken turnout at the election enough to discredit what is seen as Putin’s inevitable victory. A number of other candidates are running, including some who have repeatedly lost to Putin and who critics say have only been permitted to run by the Kremlin to create an illusion of competition.
“They are, like, fake,” Ruslan Borodinov, a 25-year-old butcher at the Moscow protest said of the other candidates. “Like an illusion of choice. There’s no one to choose.”
Borodinov, who volunteers for Navalny’s organization, had traveled several hours from a town outside Moscow.
Others at the rally said they didn’t expect it to have a big impact immediately but that it is important to show that there are opponents of Putin in Russia.
“By itself, I hardly believe that we are going to achieve anything. But it’s the first step,” said Anna Kanunikova, a 32 year-old translator who was at the Moscow protest. “It we do nothing, we will achieve nothing.”
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