Shared from the 2017-03-27 Star Tribune eEdition

Russian opposition holds biggest show of defiance in five years

Picture

EVGENY FELDMAN via Associated Press Police arrested Russia’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, in Moscow. He was the driving force of the anti-corruption protests held across the country on Sunday.

MOSCOW – Russia’s opposition, often written off by critics as a small and irrelevant coterie of privileged urbanites, put on an impressive nationwide show of strength Sunday with scores of protest rallies spanning the vast country. Hundreds were arrested, including Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who is President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic.

It was the biggest show of defiance since the 2011-2012 wave of demonstrations that rattled the Kremlin and led to harsh new laws aimed at suppressing dissent. Nearly all of Sunday’s rallies were unsanctioned, but thousands braved the prospect of arrests to gather in cities from the Far East port of Vladivostok to the “window on the West” of St. Petersburg.

An organization that monitors Russian political repression, OVD-Info, said it counted more than 800 people arrested in the Moscow demonstrations alone. That number could not be confirmed and state news agency Tass cited Moscow police as saying there were about 500 arrests.

Navalny, who was arrested while walking from a nearby subway station to the demonstration at Moscow’s iconic Pushkin Square, was the driving force of the demonstrations. He called for them after his Foundation for Fighting Corruption released a report contending that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has amassed a collection of mansions, yachts and vineyards.

Navalny is a persistent thorn in the Kremlin’s side. He has served several short jail terms after arrests in previous protests and has twice been convicted in a fraud case, but given a suspended sentence. He intends to run for president in 2018 — an election in which Putin is widely expected to run for another term — even though the conviction technically disqualifies him.

The U.S. government condemned the arrest of Navalny and of peaceful protesters, calling for their immediate release. “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law, and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

Some Russian state news media gave relatively cursory reports on the demonstrations; the state news TV channel Rossiya-24 ignored them altogether.

Police estimated the Moscow crowd at about 7,000, but it could have been larger, with Pushkin Square densely crowded.

In St. Petersburg, about 5,000 protesters assembled in the Mars Field park, shouting slogans including “Putin resign!” and “Down with the thieves in the Kremlin!”

Russia’s beleaguered opposition is often seen as primarily a phenomenon of a Westernized urban elite, but Sunday’s protests included gatherings in places far from cosmopolitan centers, such as Siberia’s Chita and Barnaul.

“Navalny has united people who think the same; that people don’t agree with the authorities is obvious from what is going on in the country today,” Anna Ivanova, 19, said at the Moscow protest. “I am a bit scared.”

Scuffles with police erupted sporadically and the arrested demonstrators included a gray-haired man whom police dragged along the pavement. Police cleared the square after about three hours.

“It’s scary, but if everyone is afraid, no one would come out onto the streets,” said protester Yana Aksyonova, 19.

Yellow duckies in protest

The luxuries amassed by Medvedev include a house for raising ducks; many placards in Sunday’s protests featured mocking images of yellow duck toys. Others had their faces painted green, a reminder of a recent attack on Navalny in which an assailant threw a green liquid onto his face. “People are unhappy with the fact that there’s been no investigation” of the corruption allegations, said Moscow protester Ivan Gronstein.

There were no comments reported from Putin, Medvedev or other top Russian politicians . Previous waves of demonstrations have dissipated through inertia or the intimidation of increasingly punitive measures.

News reports and social media reported demonstrations in large cities throughout the country, including Novosibirsk, Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk.

See this article in the e-Edition Here