Pro-Navalny Protesters Clash with Russian Police

Date: 2021-01-23 15:02:46

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Riot police clashed with protesters in cities across Russia as tens of thousands of supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny turned out in freezing temperatures on Saturday to demand his release.

Police detained hundreds of people, including at protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, after Navalny’s backers called for demonstrations in at least 66 cities across the world’s largest country. The Prosecutor-General’s Office earlier warned that those involved in the unauthorized protests may be charged with “mass disorder.”

The Interior Ministry said around 4,000 protesters gathered in central Moscow’s Pushkin Square, though observers present put the numbers involved much higher. They included Navalny’s wife, Yulia, who wrote on Instagram shortly after that she had been detained. Lyubov Sobol, a key Navalny ally was also seized by police soon after arriving at the rally.

Some 5,000 joined protests in St. Petersburg, according to Kommersant newspaper. More than 15,000 took part in demonstrations in cities across Russia’s Far East and Siberia, the Meduza news website reported. At least 863 protesters were detained by police, the OVD-Info monitoring group reported.

The showdown between the authorities and the anti-Kremlin opposition represented the largest nationwide demonstrations since 2018 protests over pension reforms. It follows Navalny’s imprisonment on Sunday after he returned to Moscow from Berlin, where he’d been recovering from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he and Western governments blamed on President Vladimir Putin’s security service. The Kremlin denies responsibility.

Protesters chanted “Putin is a thief” and demanded Navalny’s release. The 44-year-old opposition leader has continued to challenge Putin from prison, drawing 68 million views on YouTube since Tuesday for a new video investigation into a giant Black Sea palace that he alleges belongs to the president. The Kremlin has rejected the allegations.

Navalny faces a prison term of as long as 3 1/2 years at a Feb. 2 hearing for allegedly violating his probation under a suspended sentence during his treatment in Germany, while potential new charges also carry a maximum 10 years in jail. Officials close to the leadership warn that the Kremlin is determined to lock up Putin’s most prominent opponent for years despite U.S. and European demands to free him.

European Council President Charles Michel called for Navalny’s release in a call with Putin Friday. New U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told senators this week that Navalny was a voice for “millions of Russians and their voice needs to be heard.”

In a message posted Friday on his Instagram feed, Navalny said “just in case” that he has no plans to commit suicide or to have “a sudden heart attack” while in Moscow’s notorious Matrosskaya Tishina prison. “My psycho-emotional state is completely stable,” he said.

Putin, 68, pushed to change the constitution last year to allow him to continue as president until 2036, though he has yet to say if he will run for a fifth term in 2024. His support fell last year to a record low as the economy buckled under the strain of the Covid-19 epidemic.

With Russia due to hold parliamentary elections in September, Navalny is seeking to convert public unhappiness into increased opposition to Putin’s rule.