Moscow police arrest protesters ahead of Putin inauguration for fourth term

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny among the first to be seized in brutal crackdown

Russian police officers detain a protester during an unauthorised anti-Putin rally called by opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Saturday in Moscow. Photograph: Maxim Zmeyev/AFP/Getty Images

Russian police officers detain a protester during an unauthorised anti-Putin rally called by opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Saturday in Moscow. Photograph: Maxim Zmeyev/AFP/Getty Images

 

Police in Moscow arrested hundreds of demonstrators in a brutal crackdown on an opposition rally in the Russian capital on Saturday, two days before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration for a fourth presidential term.

Alexei Navalny, a popular Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader who had called for nationwide anti-Putin protests ahead of the inauguration, was among the first to be seized by law enforcers at an unauthorised meeting in Moscow’s iconic Pushkin Square.

Elsewhere in Russia there were street protests in more than 90 cities as people voted with their feet for Navalny’s “He Is Not The Tsar For Us” campaign.

OVD-Info, a human rights organisation that tracks arrests, said police detained at least 1,200 people in Russia during the Saturday protests. More than half of those taken into custody were in Moscow.

While the rallies may cast a shadow over Mr Putin’s inauguration ceremony on Monday, they pose no serious threat to the Russian president who is widely admired as a strongman in his country and won a record 76 per cent of the vote at a presidential election in March.

However, the unusually violent police response to the Moscow protest signalled the Kremlin’s readiness to deal mercilessly with political opponents during what will likely be Mr Putin’s final presidential term.

Dedicated followers

Mr Navalny, who was barred from standing for president at the March election, said that nationwide demonstrations on Saturday afternoon were an opportunity not just for his supporters, but for all the 53 million Russians who did not vote for Mr Putin, to make their voices heard.

In Moscow, the authorities had refused permission for a “walk about” demonstration on Tverskaya Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare that intersects with Pushkin Square, a traditional place for public meetings.

Many of Mr Navalny’s young, dedicated followers immediately congregated in the square where they were confronted by members of the pro-Kremlin National Liberation Movement and burly men in traditional Russian Cossack dress who began hurling insults even before the meeting began.

Law enforcers, including riot police and the recently formed Rosgvardiya, nicknamed by the opposition as “Putin’s hounds”, were deployed in large numbers, and ordered the crowds to disperse, warning over megaphones that they would use force unless they were obeyed. A helicopter hovered overhead, the deafening whirring of its engines drowning out the sound of protestors chanting “Navalny, Navalny” and “Down with the tsar”.

Riot police swooped on Mr Navalny – who had spent the night in a secret location to avoid arrest – shortly after he arrived at the meeting, carrying him off by the hands and feet to a waiting van.

There then began a full-scale onslaught on the demonstration as law enforcers set upon protestors, beating, kicking and dragging them away – often face down across the paving stones. Some Cossack lookalikes joined in the violence, unchallenged by the authorities.

Moscow’s interior ministry said about 300 people were detained during the course of the afternoon.

But the official figures were contested by OVD-Info, which said more than 700 protestors were taken into police custody.

Completely unacceptable

Attendance at the protests was difficult to assess as many participants avoided Pushkin Square and milled around the heavily policed neighbouring streets in a silent protest.

“I come to every Navalny meeting,” said a pensioner who declined to give her name. “It’s completely unacceptable that we have a Chekist as president.”

Another elderly woman said she would spend the afternoon outside a fabled Armenian grocery near Pushkin Square as a “hint” to the authorities. “They’re having a peaceful revolution in Armenia, ” she said, referring to massive street protest in Yerevan that recently forced the country’s prime minister to resign. “Why can’t we do that here?”

Police released Mr Navalny on Saturday night on orders that he appear in a Moscow court on May 11th to face dual charges of organising an illegal meeting and resisting police.

In a statement the European Union urged Russia to release peaceful demonstrators and journalists without delay. “Even if some of the demonstrations were not authorised in the location where they took place, this cannot justify police brutality and mass arrests.”