Pro­test­ers rally across Rus­sia onPutin’s birth­day

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - NATION & WORLD -

MOSCOW— In a chal­lenge to Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin on his 65th birth­day, pro­test­ers ral­lied across Rus­sia on Satur­day, heed­ing op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny’s call to pres­sure author­i­ties into let­ting him en­ter the pres­i­den­tial race.

Po­lice al­lowed de­mon­stra­tors in Moscow to rally near the Krem­lin in an ap­par­ent de­sire to avoid mar­ring Putin’s birth­day with a crack­down.

A big­ger rally in St. Peters­burg, Putin’s home­town, was dis­banded by po­lice af­ter pro­test­ers blocked traf­fic and at­tempted to break through po­lice cor­dons.

The ral­lies came as Navalny him­self is serv­ing a 20- day jail term for call­ing for an ear­lier un­sanc­tioned protest.

In Moscow, sev­eral hun­dred pro­test­ers, most of them stu­dents, gath­ered on down­town Pushkin­skaya Square, wav­ing Rus­sian flags and chant­ing “Rus­sia will be free!” and “Let Navalny run!” Po­lice warned them that the rally wasn’t sanc­tioned and urged them to dis­perse, but let the protest con­tinue for hours with­out try­ing to break it up.

Mostly teenage pro­test­ers later walked down Moscow’s Tver­skaya Street to­ward the Krem­lin, shout­ing “Putin, go away!” and “Fu­ture with­out Putin!”

Po­lice lines blocked them from ap­proach­ing Red Square and they turned back. Sev­eral hours later, some made a new at­tempt to march on the Krem­lin, shout­ing “Putin thief!”

and briefly at­tempted to block traf­fic.

“We bat­tle for Rus­sia to be free from Pu­tin­ism. Be­cause the power we have now is feu­dal, we have no free­dom of speech, no free­dom of choice,” said pro­tester Stepan Fesov.

The author­i­ties’ de­ci­sion to re­frain from break­ing up the Moscow protest con­trasted with a more force­ful re­sponse to pre­vi­ous Moscow ral­lies called by

Navalny, when po­lice de­tained more than 1,000 de­mon­stra­tors.

Po­lice also didn’t in­ter­vene at first with a big­ger un­sanc­tioned rally in St. Peters­burg, where nearly 2,000 gath­ered at Marsovo Pole park and then marched across the city chant­ing “Rus­sia with­out Putin!” and “Putin, re­tire!”

Shortly af­ter, po­lice broke up the demon­stra­tion, de­tain­ing nearly 40 af­ter some tried

to break through po­lice lines. Po­lice said those de­tained were re­leased and will face fines for block­ing traf­fic.

Af­ter the St. Peters­burg march was dis­banded, sev­eral hun­dred pro­test­ers con­tin­ued ral­ly­ing for hours at the down­town Vosstaniya Square as po­lice stood by with­out in­ter­ven­ing.

“Putin has been in charge since I was born,” said Dmitry Samokhin, an 18- year- old pro­tester in St. Peters­burg. “The coun­try is mired in stag­na­tion, and I want to see changes.”

Navalny’s head­quar­ters called protests in 80 cities. Most were not sanc­tioned by author­i­ties, but po­lice largely re­frained from dis­pers­ing the ral­lies that drew from a few dozen to a few hun­dred peo­ple. The Siberian city of Yakutsk saw a tough po­lice re­sponse, with a few dozen de­mon­stra­tors re­port­edly de­tained.

Navalny has de­clared his in­ten­tion to run for pres­i­dent in the March 2018 elec­tion, even though a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion that he calls po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated bars him from run­ning. The 41- year- old anti- cor­rup­tion crusader has or­ga­nized waves of protests this year, raising the pres­sure on the Krem­lin.

Putin hasn’t an­nounced whether he would seek re- elec­tion, but he’s widely ex­pected to run. With his cur­rent ap­proval rat­ings top­ping 80 per­cent, he is set to eas­ily win an­other sixyear term in a race against tor­pid vet­er­ans of past elec­tion cam­paigns, like Com­mu­nist Party chief Gen­nady Zyuganov.

Navalny ar­gues that the high level of sup­port for Putin comes from the lack of real po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion and urged sup­port­ers to help him get reg­is­tered.

“( Putin’s) 86 per­cent ap­proval rat­ing ex­ists in a po­lit­i­cal vac­uum,” he said. “It’s like ask­ing a per­son who has been fed rutabaga his en­tire life how eat­able they find it and the rat­ing will be quite high. Lis­ten, there are other things that are bet­ter than rutabaga.”

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

De­mon­stra­tors shouted slo­gans and­waved Rus­sian flags Satur­day in Moscow. Po­lice­warned pro­test­ers the rally wasn’t sanc­tioned and urged them to dis­perse but let it con­tinue for hour­swith­out in­ter­ven­ing.

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