Unau­tho­rized na­tion­wide protests bring thou­sands to Rus­sia’s streets

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Howard Amos and Jim Heintz

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 2011-12 wave of demon­stra­tions that rat­tled the Krem­lin and led to harsh new laws aimed at sup­press­ing dis­sent. Al­most 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 Rus-

sian po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion, OVD-Info, said it counted more than 800 peo­ple ar­rested in the Moscow demon­stra­tions. 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 been con­victed twice 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. Putin has dom­i­nated Rus­sian po­lit­i­cal life, as pres­i­dent or prime min­is­ter, since 2000.

No over­all fig­ures on ar­rests or protest at­ten­dance were avail­able. Some Rus­sian state news me­dia gave rel­a­tively cur­sory re­ports on the demon­stra­tions; the state news TV chan­nel Ros­siya-24 ig­nored them al­to­gether in evening broad­casts.

Po­lice es­ti­mated the Moscow crowd at about 7,000, but it could have been larger.

The 2.5-acre Pushkin Square was densely crowded, as were side­walks on the ad­ja­cent Tver­skaya Street.

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 demon­stra­tion. “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 and be­gan herd­ing demon­stra­tors down side streets.

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

The luxuries amassed by Medvedev in­clude a house for rais­ing ducks, so many plac­ards in Sun­day’s protests fea­tured mock­ing images of yel­low duck toys. Some demon­stra­tors car­ried run­ning shoes — a ref­er­ence to Navalny’s as­ser­tion that track­ing ship­ments of run­ning shoes for Medvedev helped re­veal his real-es­tate port­fo­lio. Oth­ers showed up with their faces painted green, a re­minder of a re­cent at­tack on Navalny in which an as­sailant threw a green an­ti­sep­tic 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, leav­ing in doubt what the Krem­lin’s strat­egy may be for coun­ter­ing the protests. Pre­vi­ous waves of demon­stra­tions have dis­si­pated through in­er­tia or the in­tim­i­da­tion of in­creas­ingly puni­tive mea­sures; un­der a 2014 law, hold­ing an unau­tho­rized protest is pun­ish­able by 15 days in jail, five years of im­pris­on­ment for a third of­fense.

In Vladi­vos­tok, po­lice force­fully de­tained some demon­stra­tors near the city’s rail­way ter­mi­nal, in one case fall­ing down a small grassy slope as they wres­tled with a de­tainee.

News re­ports and so­cial me­dia re­ported demon­stra­tions in large cities through­out the coun­try, in­clud­ing Novosi­birsk, Tomsk and Kras­no­yarsk. At least 25 peo­ple were re­ported ar­rested in Vladi­vos­tok and 12 in Khabarovsk.

About 40 peo­ple were de­tained in a small protest in the cap­i­tal of Dages­tan, a restive repub­lic in the Rus­sian Cau­ca­sus, ac­cord­ing to Tass.

Po­lice of­fi­cers de­tain a pro­tester dur­ing an unau­tho­rized anti-cor­rup­tion rally in cen­tral Moscow on Sun­day. Alexan­der Utkin, AFP/Getty Images

Po­lice de­tain a pro­tester in down­town Moscow on Sun­day. Rus­sia’s lead­ing op­po­si­tion fig­ure, Alexei Navalny, and his sup­port­ers held anti-cor­rup­tion demon­stra­tions through­out Rus­sia. The As­so­ci­ated Press

Thou­sands crowded into Moscow’s Pushkin Square on Sun­day for an un­sanc­tioned protest against the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. Alexan­der Zemlianichenko, AP

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