Hundreds of protesters held as Putin critic Navalny arrested
Riot police break up anti-corruption protests in capital and other Russian cities
Riot police detain a demonstrator during an anti-corruption protest organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on Tverskaya Street in central Moscow on Monday. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Baton-wielding riot police broke up anti-corruption protests and detained hundreds of demonstrators in Moscow and other Russian cities on Monday soon after arresting opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The protests, called by Mr Navalny, a strong critic of Russian president Vladmir Putin, drew thousands of people and were some of the biggest in Russia since 2012.
“Russia without Putin” and “Russia will be free” chanted the demonstrators, including many young people, who crowded into central Moscow on a public holiday.
Mr Navalny, who is mounting a long-shot bid to unseat Mr Putin in an election next year, had called for mass protests in Moscow and other cities against official corruption.
The Kremlin has dismissed Mr Navalny’s graft allegations, accusing him of irresponsibly trying to whip up unrest.
The scale of Monday’s protests in Moscow and smaller ones in St Petersburg and scores of other cities suggests Mr Navalny has maintained his campaign’s momentum despite more than 1,000 people being arrested after the last such protest in March.
That is likely to embolden him to call for more protests and keep Mr Putin, who is expected to run for and win re-election next year, under rare domestic pressure.
“Neither mass detentions nor criminal cases after March 26 (the last protest) worked,” wrote Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny ally, on social media. “People are not afraid.”
The OVD-Info monitoring group, a non-profit organisation, said preliminary figures showed 730 people had been detained in Moscow. The interior ministry said 500 people were detained in St Petersburg.
Mr Navalny’s wife, Yulia, said her husband had been detained as he tried to leave their home. Reuters witnesses saw a police car leaving his apartment compound at high speed, followed a few minutes later by a minibus carrying about 10 policemen.
Electricity in his office was cut at about the same time as he was detained, briefly bringing down a live feed of the protests, Mr Navalny’s spokeswoman said.
Mr Navalny was accused of violating the law on organising public meetings and of disobeying a police officer, police said.
Authorities in Moscow said Monday’s protest was illegal and drafted in riot police who fired pepper spray and used batons to break it up, detaining people and bundling them onto buses.
Roman, a 19-year-old student, said Mr Navalny’s campaign against official corruption had struck a chord.
“I’m sick of the Putin system,” he said. “It’s been unchanged for the last 17 years. There is so much evidence that our officials are stealing with impunity.”
Dima, an 18-year-old florist, said he wanted prime minister Dmitry Medvedev to return what he said were the politician’s ill-gotten gains. Mr Medvedev, a close Putin ally, flatly denies wrongdoing.
“I’m not afraid if I get detained,” Dima said.
The interior ministry said the turnout at the Moscow protest was about 4,500 – significantly fewer than the numbers estimated by Reuters reporters, who put the turnout in the low tens of thousands.
State media ignored the demonstrations, broadcasting Soviet-style coverage of Mr Putin handing out state awards instead.
Mr Navalny brought thousands onto the streets across Russia in March, the largest such protests since a wave of anti-Kremlin demonstrations in 2012. Mr Navalny was fined and jailed for 15 days for his role in those protests.
Moscow authorities had initially authorised a venue for Monday’s protest away from the city centre. But Mr Navalny switched it to Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main avenue near the Kremlin. The general prosecutor’s office had warned that a protest there would be illegal.
The area of Tsverskaya Street near where Mr Navalny’s supporters congregated was hosting an officially-organised festival, with actors re-enacting periods of Russian history.
Video footage showed a protester clambering onto a mock-up of a wartime sandbag fortification holding a poster calling Mr Putin a liar, before being pulled to the ground by a cast member dressed as a second World War Soviet soldier.
For now, polls suggest Mr Navalny has scant chance of unseating Mr Putin, who enjoys high ratings. It is unclear too if the Kremlin will even let Mr Navalny run for the presidency.