Putin foe ar­rested af­ter stir­ring protest

Demon­stra­tions against per­ceived cor­rup­tion stretch across na­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARC BEN­NETTS

MOSCOW | He has emerged as Vladimir Putin’s worst night­mare, and his re­fusal to just go away earned op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny yet an­other trip to the jail­house Mon­day.

In one of the big­ger chal­lenges to the Rus­sian pres­i­dent’s in­creas­ingly author­i­tar­ian rule, more than 1,000 pro­test­ers were ar­rested across the na­tion af­ter de­fy­ing po­lice bans on ral­ly­ing against Mr. Putin’s long rule and de­mand­ing an end to high-level cor­rup­tion.

De­spite con­sid­er­able ha­rass­ment and phys­i­cal threats, Mr. Navalny was at the cen­ter of the ag­i­ta­tion again. He was lead­ing the call for protests over ac­cu­sa­tions that Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev ac­cepted over $1 bil­lion in bribes from state banks and Krem­lin-friendly oli­garchs. Mr. Medvedev de­nies

the claims.

“Rus­sia with­out Putin!” thou­sands of peo­ple chanted on Tver­skaya, Moscow’s main street, as riot po­lice in body ar­mor at­tempted to break up the un­sanc­tioned demon­stra­tion. Many pro­test­ers held Rus­sian flags and some chanted, “I love Rus­sia!” as squads of riot po­lice dragged them off to wait­ing po­lice vans. Over 700 peo­ple were ar­rested in Moscow alone, rights groups said.

The Moscow protest was the most prom­i­nent in a string of more than 100 ral­lies in cities and towns stretch­ing through all 11 of Rus­sia’s time zones — from the Pa­cific to the Euro­pean en­clave of Kalin­ingrad, The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported.

The protests took place on Rus­sia Day, a na­tional hol­i­day in honor of the dec­la­ra­tion of sovereignty in 1990 in the wake of the col­lapse of the Soviet Union. In cen­tral Moscow, where au­thor­i­ties had or­ga­nized his­tor­i­cal re-en­act­ments to cel­e­brate the hol­i­day, there were of­ten sur­real scenes as pro­test­ers scaled straw huts oc­cu­pied by ac­tors dressed as me­dieval Rus­sian war­riors. In an­other bizarre in­ci­dent, ac­tors play­ing the role of Stalin-era se­cret po­lice handed over a pro­tester to gen­uine po­lice of­fi­cers.

Ilya Yashin, a prom­i­nent op­po­si­tion fig­ure, wrote on Twit­ter that when he asked po­lice why he was be­ing de­tained, he was told it was be­cause he had failed to cel­e­brate Rus­sia Day “normally.”

The un­rest will only sharpen the an­i­mos­ity be­tween an im­pe­rial pres­i­dent and his most prom­i­nent do­mes­tic de­trac­tor.

Mr. Navalny, a charis­matic 41-year-old lawyer, was ar­rested as he left his apart­ment to at­tend the protest in Moscow. His wife, Yu­lia, said he was charged with dis­obey­ing po­lice or­ders and now faces up to 15 days in jail for stag­ing unau­tho­rized protests. An on­line broad­cast of the protests by Mr. Navalny’s anti-cor­rup­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion was halted when po­lice cut through ca­bles.

“I’m fed up with Putin and his thiev­ing friends,” Alisa Popova, a 20-year-old photography stu­dent, told The Wash­ing­ton Times dur­ing the protest in Moscow. “I want a democ­racy, but ba­si­cally we have an un­de­clared monar­chy.”

Many pro­test­ers chanted, “Down with the tsar,” as they con­verged near the Krem­lin.

Protests also took place in St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia’s big­gest city, where some 500 peo­ple were de­tained, as well as dozens of other towns and cities across the coun­try. Some, such as No­rilsk, a for­mer gu­lag town in north­ern Siberia, re­port­edly wit­nessed their first op­po­si­tion ral­lies. In Sochi, which hosted the 2014 Win­ter Olympic Games, at least 50 peo­ple were de­tained.

State tele­vi­sion made no men­tion of the protests, and Mr. Putin spent part of the day show­ing chil­dren around the Krem­lin. De­spite claims that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has sought to forge a new re­la­tion­ship with the Krem­lin, White House press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer said at Mon­day’s brief­ing that the United States “strongly con­demns the de­ten­tion of hun­dreds of peace­ful pro­test­ers through­out Rus­sia.”

“The Rus­sian peo­ple de­serve a gov­ern­ment that sup­ports an open mar­ket­place of ideas, trans­par­ent and ac­count­able gover­nance, equal treat­ment un­der the law and the abil­ity to ex­er­cise their rights with­out fear of ret­ri­bu­tion,” Mr. Spicer said.

Elec­tion ma­neu­ver­ing

Al­though polls say Mr. Putin re­mains pop­u­lar with many Rus­sians, grow­ing eco­nomic woes trig­gered by West­ern sanc­tions and low global prices for oil have plunged mil­lions of peo­ple into poverty, rais­ing so­cial ten­sions ahead of next year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Al­though he has not an­nounced whether he will stand, Rus­sia’s long­time leader is widely ex­pected to se­cure a fourth term of of­fice that would take him to 2024.

Mr. Navalny wants to chal­lenge Mr. Putin in the elec­tion, but Rus­sian of­fi­cials say pre­vi­ous crim­i­nal con­vic­tions make him in­el­i­gi­ble. In 2013, Mr. Navalny was sen­tenced to five years in prison on what he says were po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated fraud charges, but he was freed the next day af­ter his sup­port­ers staged a mass rally out­side par­lia­ment. His sen­tence was later com­muted to pro­ba­tion on ap­peal. The Rus­sian Con­sti­tu­tion says that only peo­ple serv­ing prison time are in­el­i­gi­ble to stand.

Mr. Navalny launched an au­da­cious elec­tion cam­paign this year, open­ing dozens of of­fices across the coun­try in a bid to force the Krem­lin to regis­ter him as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Rus­sia’s state­con­trolled elec­tion com­mit­tee will rule on his ap­pli­ca­tion in De­cem­ber.

Mr. Navalny first emerged as a prom­i­nent Krem­lin critic dur­ing mass anti-Putin protests start­ing in 2011, ce­ment­ing his role as a top op­po­si­tion fig­ure af­ter fin­ish­ing sec­ond in the race for mayor of Moscow on an anti-Putin plat­form.

Al­though he is barred from state tele­vi­sion, he has won mil­lions of fol­low­ers across Rus­sia with his on­line ac­cu­sa­tions of mas­sive cor­rup­tion by Mr. Putin and his in­ner cir­cle. A slick YouTube film that he re­leased this year de­tail­ing claims that Mr. Medvedev fun­neled bribes through shad­owy char­ity or­ga­ni­za­tions into yachts and lux­ury real es­tate has been watched over 20 mil­lion times. That video sparked mas­sive na­tion­wide street protests in March that re­sulted in over 1,000 ar­rests.

Mean­while, Mr. Navalny has earned a rep­u­ta­tion for per­sonal courage af­ter fac­ing re­peated phys­i­cal as­saults. He suf­fered a se­ri­ous eye in­jury in April when he had a burn­ing green liq­uid thrown into his face by a pro-Krem­lin ac­tivist. No one has been charged in con­nec­tion with the as­sault.

Mean­while, Mr. Navalny’s wry hu­mor and as­tute use of so­cial me­dia have gained him a mas­sive fol­low­ing among younger Rus­sians.

“I’ve lived my whole life un­der Putin, and I’m fed up of the lies they tell us,” Yevgeny Lapin, an 18-year-old vol­un­teer at Mr. Navalny’s elec­tion cam­paign head­quar­ters in Vologda, a city in north­ern Rus­sia, told The Wash­ing­ton Times ahead of Mon­day’s protests. “Navalny of­fers a gen­uine al­ter­na­tive to Putin’s never-end­ing rule.”

The Krem­lin has at­tempted to crack down on Mr. Navalny’s ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity among young peo­ple. Uni­ver­sity stu­dents have been threat­ened with ex­pul­sion for at­tend­ing op­po­si­tion protests, while schools and col­leges have forced stu­dents to watch films com­par­ing Mr. Navalny to Hitler. Mr. Navalny, who has a law de­gree and stud­ied fi­nance as a young man, was pre­vi­ously linked strongly to Rus­sia’s na­tion­al­ist move­ment but has toned down his anti-mi­grant rhetoric in re­cent years.

“The par­tic­i­pa­tion of so many young peo­ple in the protests is a very im­por­tant sign of the rad­i­cal­iza­tion of the sit­u­a­tion and the po­lit­i­cal process in Rus­sia,” said Valery Solovei, a pro­fes­sor at the Moscow State In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions. “We are see­ing a global shift in Rus­sian mass con­scious­ness from loy­alty to the au­thor­i­ties to dis­loy­alty. The youth are not afraid.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

TO ARMS: Pro­test­ers in down­town Moscow were blocked by riot po­lice on Mon­day af­ter a last-minute lo­ca­tion change. Op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny was aim­ing for demon­stra­tions that could pro­voke con­fronta­tions with po­lice.

Navalny

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