Massive protests took place across Russia on Saturday in support of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader and vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin. Navalny was arrested last Sunday after returning from Germany to Moscow, where he was treated for allegedly Kremlin-related poisoning five months earlier.
Reuters said around 40,000 people took part in the Moscow protests, although police called the figure incorrect, putting the crowd at 4,000. Several thousand more participated in towns across the country, from Yakutsk to the north. -est in St. Petersburg in the west, and around 3,000 protesters were arrested in all.
The protesters were greeted by a heavy police presence – and government officials urged citizens to stay at home, arguing that the rallies did not have the proper permission.
“Respected citizens, the current event is illegal,” police reportedly announced during the demonstration in Moscow. “We do everything to ensure your safety.”
Few protesters heeded the warnings, and the number of people arrested during protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg and around 70 other cities has risen to at least 3,000, according to reports by human rights monitoring group OVD-Info . This includes about 1,100 people in Moscow alone on Saturday at 11:30 p.m. Moscow time.
Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was among those arrested during the weekend’s protests. Heads of his party’s regional offices were also arrested ahead of the protests, along with members of Navalny’s team, including his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh.
Navalny’s arrest – and the detentions of his team – have galvanized a huge mass movement. The scale of the protests in Moscow is reminiscent of the summer of 2019, when at least 60,000 people demonstrated in this city to demand fair elections. (Navalny was also arrested prior to this move.)
While many of the protesters were Navalny supporters, others said they came out more because they wanted to see a radical end to Putin’s authoritarian rule.
“I have never been a big supporter of Navalny, and yet I fully understand that this is a very serious situation,” said Vitaliy Blazhevich – who, at 57, was one of the most experienced participants in the protest – at the New York Times.
“Unless we keep going out [to protest], the problem in this country will never go away, ”Natalya Krainova, a former teacher, told The Guardian. “And this problem is Putin.”
Whatever their motivation, in many places protesters were greeted by swift and aggressive police forces.
A video from Moscow, for example, shows police in riot gear beating protesters with batons. Dozens of protesters in that town have been arrested outside the Matrosskaya Tishina detention center, where Navalny is being held.
As night fell, police set off smoke grenades over downtown Moscow and protesters responded with snowballs, according to journalist Alec Luhn.
The demonstrations were also struck by their enormous geographic diversity. On Twitter, Atlantic journalist Anne Applebaum gathered scenes from large protests – largely made up of young people, many of whom waved Russian flags – in the cities of Irkutsk, Novosirbirsk, Vladivostok, Tomsk and Yakutsk.
Yakutsk is in eastern Siberia, while Vladivostok borders the Sea of Japan. During a Siberian winter, these protesters also braved brutally cold temperatures, with temperatures approaching -60 ° F in some places.
The fact that the protests were so widespread and involved Russians of all ages is indicative of Navalny’s appeal and ability to mobilize supporters – especially young people – according to the Washington Post.
In recent years, Putin has taken steps to clamp down on dissent more aggressively, with new laws making it harder to organize protests. Russians who demonstrated on Saturday risk jail and other consequences.
Artyom, a student who protested, told the Guardian that he and his classmates were threatened with serious academic consequences, which he said meant expulsion, if they participated.
Putin looks set to stay in power, despite public opposition seen on Saturday. A recent change in the Russian constitution would allow Putin to retain power for another 15 years.
Navalny is the leader of the Russian opposition movement
In August, Navalny fell ill at a Siberian airport before catching a flight to Moscow. His team, concerned that he was not receiving proper care in Russia, partnered with a humanitarian group who transported him to Germany for treatment. There, doctors traced the cause of his illness, which turned out to be novichok, a deadly nerve agent that the Russian government is known to use.
As Vox’s Alex Ward wrote, Navalny always vowed to return to Russia, even though he continued to criticize Putin from Germany – including directly accusing the Kremlin of trying to kill him in YouTube videos. viewed over 40 million times.
When Navalny arrived at Berlin airport on January 17 for his trip home, he said he was not afraid, even though Russian authorities threatened to arrest him on his return. Hundreds of supporters violated anti-protest laws to greet his plane at Vnukovo airport in Moscow. Instead, the plane was diverted to Sheremetyevo Airport, after which Navalny was stopped at passport control.
The official charge he faces is of not showing up for a parole hearing, linked to a 2014 embezzlement case. Navalny has claimed the charges were politically motivated. However, if the charges stand, he risks years in prison.
His latest arrest follows years of attempts by the Kremlin to quell his opposition and dissuade Navalny from returning home, including placing him on his federal wanted list and claiming he was avoiding overseas inspectors, as Ward wrote:
This sort of thing is nothing new to Navalny. As mentioned, he has already been arrested – and even poisoned before – so there is a possibility that he will eventually be released and return to the helm of Russia’s anti-Putin movement. Sometimes the Kremlin just wants to remind Navalny who’s in charge and slow down his work, in a way that tries to maintain the illusion of Russian democracy.
But it’s also possible that Putin got it, especially since he’s looking to stay in power for life. Suppressing its main political enemy would surely facilitate such a ploy, although it may invite condemnation from other countries, including the newly ruled United States by President-elect Joe Biden.
Navalny has received support from US officials. A few hours after the detention of Navalny, new national security adviser Jake sullivan tweeted a statement condemning the detention of the Putin critic. “Sir. Navalny should be immediately released and the perpetrators of the scandalous attack on his life must be held responsible,” he wrote.
And Rebecca Ross, spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Moscow, tweeted on Saturday that “the United States supports the right of all people to protest peacefully, freedom of speech. The measures taken by the Russian authorities remove these rights. “
We watch reports of protests in 38 Russian cities, arrests of more than 350 peaceful protesters and journalists. The United States supports the right of all people to protest peacefully, freedom of speech. The measures taken by the Russian authorities remove these rights.
– Rebecca Ross (@USEmbRuPress) 23 January 2021
However, it is not clear to what extent an American response will be effective. Relations between Washington and Moscow – already fresh – have deteriorated further since a hack of US federal agencies was linked to Russia in late 2020. Additionally, operations have been shut down at the last two remaining US consulates – one in Vladivostok and one in Yekaterinburg – leaving the The US Embassy in Moscow is the only US outpost in the whole country.