Russian police detained dozens of protesters on Saturday as thousands of supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny took to the streets following his call to protest against President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Putin’s most charismatic critic urged mass rallies after surviving a near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent and returning to Moscow last weekend following months of treatment in Germany. He was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport and jailed.
Saturday’s rallies are expected to be a major test of the opposition’s ability to mobilise despite increasing Kremlin pressure on critics and the coronavirus pandemic.
Ahead of the demonstrations, Navalny’s team released an investigation into an opulent Black Sea property allegedly owned by Putin. Since its release it has been viewed more than 65 million times.
In the Pacific port of Vladivostok, demonstrators gathered in the city centre, chanting “Putin is a thief” and “Freedom to Navalny!”
AFP footage shows police in full riot gear running after protesters and beating them with batons.
Protests also took place in other cities in the Far East and Siberia including Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk and Chita where several thousand turned out, Navalny supporters said.
In Yakutsk south of the Arctic Circle, protesters wrapped up against the cold rallied in temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius (-58 Fahrenheit).
OVD Info, which monitors detentions at opposition rallies, said police roughly broke up rallies and nearly 200 people were detained in around 20 cities.
In Moscow, which usually mobilises the largest rallies, protesters plan to meet in the central Pushkin Square at 2:00 pm (1100 GMT) and march towards the Kremlin.
Hours ahead of the Moscow protest, workers began re-laying paving slabs at the site of the rally, Navalny’s team said.
Moscow police vowed a tough crackdown, with police saying unsanctioned public events would be “immediately suppressed”.
– ‘Help will come’ –
Navalny, who is being held in Moscow’s high-security Matrosskaya Tishina jail, thanked his supporters.
“I know perfectly well that there are lots of good people outside of my prison’s walls and help will come,” he said on Friday.
Navalny’s wife Yulia said she would join the Moscow protest “For myself, for him, for our children, for the values and the ideals that we share,” she said on Instagram.
Ahead of the demonstrations several key Navalny aides including his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh were taken into police custody for violating protest laws and handed short jail sentences.
The Investigative Committee on Friday launched a criminal probe into the calls for unauthorised protests.
A hastily organised court on Monday jailed Navalny for 30 days, and his supporters fear that authorities are preparing to sentence him to a long prison term to silence him.
The “Putin’s palace” report released by Navalny alleges the Russian leader owns a 17,691 square metre mansion that sits on a property 39 times the size of Monaco and features a casino along with a theatre and a hookah lounge complete with a pole-dancing stage.
The Kremlin has denied the property belongs to Putin.
A number of public figures — including those who usually steer clear of politics — have spoken out in Navalny’s support.
Many took to social media — including video sharing app TikTok hugely popular with teens — to voice support and urge a large turnout on Saturday.
A hashtag demanding freedom for Navalny was trending on TikTok and videos demanding Navalny’s release garnered hundreds of millions of views.
Russia’s media watchdog warned online platforms against encouraging minors to participate in the rallies or risk hefty fines.
The watchdog said on Friday that media platforms, including TikTok and YouTube, began removing content at its request.
Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte blocked groups created to coordinate the protests in different cities.
Navalny, 44, rose to prominence a decade ago and has become the central figure of Russia’s opposition movement, leading large-scale street protests against alleged corruption and electoral fraud.
His arrest drew widespread Western condemnation, with the United States, the European Union, France and Canada calling for his release.
by Anna SMOLCHENKO