Protests in Rus­sia give Putin a fresh dilemma

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The week­end’s demon­stra­tions were pop­u­lated mostly by teens an­gry about cor­rup­tion, and shed more light on op­po­si­tion leader.

The wave of MOSCOW — na­tion­wide demon­stra­tions that shook Rus­sia’s long dor­mant po­lit­i­cal scene over the week­end showed a new face of protest: mostly teenage demon­stra­tors driven by ac­cu­sa­tions of high-level of­fi­cial cor­rup­tion, glar­ing amid the na­tion’s painful two-year re­ces­sion.

A year be­fore fac­ing re-elec­tion, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has a dilemma: to fur­ther tighten the screws or to de­vise more art­ful means for keep­ing a lid on dis­sent. On Mon­day, a Moscow court handed a 15-day jail term to the protest or­ga­nizer, Alexei Navalny, whose charisma and so­cial me­dia savvy ral­lied the young.

Navalny was ar­rested as he walked to a protest in Moscow on Sun­day and spent the night in jail be­fore show­ing up in court. Po­lice have ar­rested more than 1,000 peo­ple for tak­ing part in the unau­tho­rized protest in the cap­i­tal, and many of them face jail sen­tences or fines. Navalny’s anti-cor­rup­tion foun­da­tion has promised to of­fer le­gal as­sis­tance to all those who were ar­rested.

“Even the slight­est il­lu­sion of fair jus­tice is ab­sent here,” Navalny told re­porters Mon­day from the de­fen­dant’s bench, com­plain­ing about the judge strik­ing down one mo­tion af­ter an­other. “Yes­ter­day’s events have shown that quite a large num­ber of vot­ers in Rus­sia sup­port the pro­gram of a can­di­date who stands for fight­ing cor­rup­tion. These peo­ple de­mand po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion — and I strive to be their po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive.”

Jour­nal­ists and well-wish­ers packed the court­room in cen­tral Moscow, where Navalny, in a selfie posted on Twit­ter, de­clared: “A time will come when we’ll put them (the au­thor­i­ties) on trial too — and that time it will be fair.”

Navalny, 40, Rus­sia’s most pop­u­lar op­po­si­tion leader, has had three con­vic­tions on fraud and em­bez­zle­ment charges that he dis­misses as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. Even though the con­vic­tions tech­ni­cally dis­qual­ify him, he has an­nounced a pres­i­den­tial bid for 2018.

With his col­or­ful and sar­cas­tic ex­pose of Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev’s al­leged col­lec­tion of man­sions, vil­las and vine­yards — which gar­nered over 13 mil­lion views on YouTube — Navalny man­aged to draw tens of thou­sands to the streets across Rus­sia in the big­gest show of de­fi­ance since a 2011-2012 wave of protests rat­tled the Krem­lin and led to harsh new laws aimed at sup­press­ing dis­sent.

On Mon­day, Putin met with se­nior of­fi­cers of the Na­tional Guard, which took part in ar­rest­ing par­tic­i­pants in the demon­stra­tions along with po­lice, but he didn’t men­tion the protest. Rus­sian state tele­vi­sion com­pletely ig­nored the demon­stra­tions in their broad­casts on Sun­day, and Medvedev re­frained from com­ment.

“The ques­tion now is what kind of bal­ance be­tween pro­pa­ganda and re­pres­sion the gov­ern­ment will choose,” said An­drei Kolesnikov, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst with the Carnegie Moscow Cen­ter. “The gov­ern­ment needs to pre­serve it­self for an­other pres­i­den­tial term — if not for­ever — and now there is an im­por­tant mo­ment when the gov­ern­ment is choos­ing its strat­egy and tac­tics.”

Medvedev’s job had re­port­edly been in jeop­ardy amid in­fight­ing among var­i­ous fac­tions in the Krem­lin, but now his ten­ure seems se­cure as his dis­missal would look like cav­ing in to pro­test­ers’ de­mands — some­thing Putin never does.

The Krem­lin has long sought to cast the op­po­si­tion as a phe­nom­e­non of a priv­i­leged West­ern­ized ur­ban elite out of sync with broader lay­ers of the pop­u­la­tion in Rus­sia’s far-flung re­gions. How­ever, Sun­day’s protests en­gulfed many ar­eas out­side big cos­mopoli­tan cities, a sign of spread­ing pub­lic dis­con­tent.

On Mon­day, the Euro­pean Union and the United States crit­i­cized the po­lice crack­down and called on Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties to re­lease all those de­tained. White House press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer read a State Depart­ment state­ment call­ing the de­ten­tions “an af­front to es­sen­tial demo­cratic values.”

DE­NIS TYRIN / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny, next to his lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, ges­tures while speak­ing Mon­day in court in Moscow. Navalny, who or­ga­nized na­tion­wide protests, was ar­rested as he walked to a protest Sun­day in Moscow.

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