Russian oppn leader detained, office raided amid protests

MOSCOW: Russian police on Sunday detained opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow as thousands rallied across the country against a March election expected to extend Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin term.
Surrounded by supporters, the 41-year-old charismatic politician chanted “Swindlers and thieves” before being detained shortly afterwards at an unsanctioned gathering in the city centre amid heavy police presence.
Navalny urged Muscovites to take to the streets despite his arrest.
“You are not rallying for me, but for yourselves and your future,” he tweeted.
Heeding a call by Putin’s bete noire, thousands braved freezing temperatures to stage rallies in dozens of cities to protest upcoming “pseudo-elections,” as Navalny and his supporters refer to them.
Many chanted and brandished placards saying “Voters’ strike” and “Without me.”
About 3,000 to 4,000 people turned up for the unsanctioned rally in Moscow. Authorities beefed up security, dispatching police vans and passenger buses to the city centre, but police largely refrained from arresting protesters.
Ahead of the Moscow rally police broke into Navalny’s headquarters using a power saw, interrupting a live broadcast covering protests in the east of the country.
Police also detained several employees of his Anti-Corruption Foundation as well as supporters.
In Moscow, a crowd of protesters was later allowed to walk down to Red Square. Authorities estimated the Moscow turnout at around 1,000 people. Police said Navalny faced penalties for organising an unpermitted protest, adding he had been taken to a police station.
Around 240 people were detained across the country, according to OVD-Info, an independent group which monitors crackdowns on demonstrations.
Sunday’s turnout paled in comparison to last year’s rallies when tens of thousands rallied against corruption among Russia’s elite in March and June, 2017.
Police unleashed a severe crackdown afterwards, arresting more than 1,000 people including schoolchildren. Navalny himself served three jail sentences of 15 days, 25 days and 20 days for organising unauthorised protests last year. But many protesters said authorities would not intimidate them.
“These are not elections because we already know the result,” Elena Ruzhe, 62, said in Moscow. “I’m not scared to protest,” added the former culture ministry worker. Protester Alexandra Fedorova, who wore a fur coat, said it was wrong not to let Navalny take part in the vote. “I don’t see a future. There is nobody to vote for,” the 27-year-old said. After 18 years of leadership, both as president and prime minister, Putin fatigue is spreading across Russia.
Protesters expressed similar sentiments in the second city of Saint Petersburg, the Russian leader’s hometown, where at least 1,000 people rallied, some chanting “Russia without Putin”.
“I want change,” Andrei Petrov, 20, said in the former imperial capital. “We are tired of living in this quagmire.”
Earlier in the day, opposition supporters protested in far eastern Russia and Siberia, including in the northern city of Yakutsk where Russians rallied despite temperatures of around minus 45 Celsius.
In the Ural city of Yekaterinburg, around 1,000 people rallied, with the city’s mayor joining the crowd.
Navalny has built a robust protest movement despite constant police harassment, tapping into the anger of a younger generation yearning for change. — AFP