Protests across Russia impugn Putin on president’s birthday
Rallies called to allow opposition figure Navalny to run for top office
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.
In Moscow, several hundred protesters, mostly students, gathered at Pushkinskaya Square downtown, waving Russian flags and chanting “Russia will be free!” and “Let Navalny run!” Police warned them that the rally wasn’t permitted and urged them to disperse, but officers 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 attempting 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,” protester Stepan Fesov said.
The authorities’ decision to refrain from breaking up the Moscow protest contrasted more forceful responses to previous Moscow rallies called by Navalny, when police detained more than 1,000 demonstrators. Navalny himself is serving a 20-day jail term for calling for an earlier unapproved protest.
Police also did not intervene at first with a rally in St. Petersburg, Putin’s home town, where nearly 2,000 gathered at the Field of Mars park and then marched across the city chanting “Russia without Putin!” and “Putin, retire!”
Shortly after, however, 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.
Navalny’s headquarters called protests in 80 cities. Most were not permitted by authorities, but police largely refrained from dispersing the rallies, which drew from a few dozen to a few hundred people.
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 anticorruption crusader has organized waves of protests this year, raising the pressure on the Kremlin.
Putin has not yet announced whether he will seek reelection, but he is widely expected to run.
Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny protest President Vladimir Putin on Saturday night in Moscow. Police largely allowed the nationwide rallies to run their course without interruption.