Pro-democracy activists and police set for fresh clashes in Moscow

Rally planned for a week after 1,000 arrested in violent crackdown on demonstration

A protestor holds a placard reading ‘Here we choose!’ at a rally in Moscow last Saturday calling for free and fair elections. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

A protestor holds a placard reading ‘Here we choose!’ at a rally in Moscow last Saturday calling for free and fair elections. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

 

Russian pro-democracy activists have called for fresh protests in Moscow on Saturday, raising the stakes in a battle with the authorities for free and fair elections.

State prosecutors have urged citizens to stay away from the unauthorised rally that follows a violent police crackdown on a demonstration last weekend which saw more than 1,000 arrests.

Russian law enforcers have launched a huge effort to crush an outbreak of protests that began three weeks ago after Moscow election officials refused to register some 20 opposition-minded candidates for an upcoming city parliament poll. Police have been rounding up opposition activists and raiding the homes of suspected dissidents.

The Investigative Committee of Russia has started a criminal probe of at least 10 people suspected of causing “mass disturbances” at last weekend’s rally, an offence punishable with up to eight years in prison.

Pro-democracy activists have called for a protest on Saturday afternoon that will take the form of a promenade along the boulevards of central Moscow.

More than 6,200 people have indicated in a Facebook flyer for the event that they will participate.

‘Provocations’

The Russian prosecutor’s office issued a statement on Friday reminding citizens that it was illegal to take part in unauthorised mass demonstrations and warned that police would “take all necessary measures to intervene in provocations, mass disorder or any activity leading to a breach in public security”.

Ella Pamfilova, head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, issued a last-minute appeal to the unregistered candidates not to expose their supporters to the risk of “blows” and instead resolve the dispute over the city parliament ballot in a “civilised dialogue” with the authorities.

However, the candidates say the time for compromise has gone.

“Political repressions will only grow if we give up,” said Lyubov Sobol, an opposition activist whose bid to run in the election has been rejected.

Moscow’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin has accused the opposition of using the demonstrations to try to usurp power and commended police for breaking up last week’s rally.

In a bid to contain the protest movement, the mayor’s office held talks with Mikhail Svetov, the leader of the unregistered Libertarian Party, on Wednesday and offered to sanction a rally on Sakharov Prospect, a huge square on the fringes of the city centre that is relatively easy to police.

Central location

Mr Svetov rejected the proposal and said he would only settle for a more central location such as the square outside the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the Soviet KGB. The mayor’s office refused. Police arrested Mr Svetov as he left the talks. He is now serving a 30-day prison sentence for violating Russian public meeting laws.

They have stopped being afraid, and this is a completely new thing

Russia’s state-owned VTsIOM pollster published a survey on Thursday indicating that 61 per cent of Muscovites endorsed tough police action to break up unsanctioned protests.

Some people would be too scared to join Saturday’s protest, said Lev Gudkov, a sociologist who heads the Levada Centre, an independent Russia pollster. However, young Russians who grew up after the Soviet Union’s collapse were becoming increasingly politicised and less risk-averse.

“They have stopped being afraid, and this is a completely new thing,” he told Echo of Moscow radio.