Thousands turn out for Alexei Navalny rally after pro-Putin official wins Moscow election
Opposition leader warned over claims of campaign of disobedience
Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny arrive in their droves for a protest rally in Moscow yesterday. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Moscow’s chief prosecutor’s office has warned opposition leader Alexei Navalny that he could face legal action because of an assertion on the internet interpreted as calling for a campaign of disobedience in the city. Such a campaign would be against the law and Navalny would be held responsible, the office said in a statement.
Navalny, who finished second in Sunday’s mayoral election, already faces a four-year prison sentence for alleged embezzlement of a timber firm in the provincial city of Kirov following a trial that he declared to be politically motivated.
Although the election and the powerful mayoralty of Europe’s biggest city has gone to the incumbent pro-Putin official Sergei Sobyanin, Navalny has had a major political success in that he received more votes than the other four opposition candidates combined, with Ivan Melnikov of the Communist Party the only other runner to get into double figures.
In Russia there are two types of opposition. The “parliamentary opposition” consists of the Communist Party, the left-of-centre A Just Russia Party and the inaptly-named far-right Liberal Democratic Party. These parties are by no means vigorous opponents of the Putin administration.
The “extra-parliamentary opposition” is formed by those who have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the government. Sunday’s vote confirmed Navalny as the unchallenged leader of this group. The other extra-parliamentary candidate, Sergei Mitrokhin of the liberal pro-western Yabloko Party, who has criticised Navalny’s anti-immigrant views, managed to scrape just 3 per cent of the vote.
Although his support at the polls, officially at more than 27 per cent, has been put down to the fact that the turnout was one of the lowest in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, Navalny’s rally in Bolotnaya Square in central Moscow across the river from the Kremlin was the biggest seen in the city for quite some time.
The police put the figure at 9,000 but it appeared to be closer to 15,000. Crowds poured out of the Borovitskaya, Tretyakovskaya and Polyanka metro stations under the eyes of the police, the OMON special police and a group identifying themselves as the Moscow Special Regiment of interior ministry forces.
The protesters, undeterred by these forces, obviously represented the Moscow middle classes with their expensive cameras, smartphones and iPads brought in to record the event. A very large proportion were young. Irina (18), had voted for the first time on Sunday, casting her vote for Navalny, and was convinced that the elections were dishonest and hoped the authorities would allow the vote to be taken again.
Her boyfriend, Igor, who is not from Moscow and did not have a vote, said he thought there was fraud in hospitals and other establishments where patients and staffs were instructed to vote for Sobyanin.
Ivan (35), wearing a huge Navalny sticker, claimed the main flaw was that when the ballot boxes were taken away from the polling stations, observers were not allowed to follow them to their destination, and those who took the boxes away were paid by the state. “Unfortunately our state and leaders don’t hold fair and honest elections. They don’t have a record of doing so,” he told me.
Yevgeny (28) was reticent in his comments, simply saying: “They have ways of cheating. We need legitimate elections and I think eventually we can get them.”
At 8pm, an hour after the rally was due to start, the pro-Navalny demonstrators were still arriving on the scene and queuing to get through the police metal detectors which are a feature of Russian street demonstrations. Another unusual feature is that rally organisers must predict the maximum number who will attend; if the crowd goes over that number a fine is imposed. Navalny’s people applied for a rally of 2,500 people last night. The fine could be a hefty one.