Tuesday 21 January 2020

Over 1,600 held after riot police break up Putin protest marches

Riot police detain a protester during a demonstration in central Moscow yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Riot police detain a protester during a demonstration in central Moscow yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Howard Amos in Moscow

Hundreds of Russian anti-corruption protesters were arrested yesterday in the biggest crackdown since President Vladimir Putin came to power.

Russian media reported that more than 1,600 people were arrested during rallies that swept the country, and saw protesters chanting "Russia without Putin" and "Russia will be free".

Protesters scuffle with police. Photo: AP
Protesters scuffle with police. Photo: AP

Alexei Navalny, the charismatic opposition leader, was detained as he left his Moscow home for the rally.

The police crackdown was concentrated in Moscow and St Petersburg but detentions also took place at protests across Russia's 11 time zones.

The number of arrests was on course to surpass those in March during a first outbreak of nationwide anti-corruption protests called by Mr Navalny.

The Kremlin is struggling to respond to a wave of anger that has been channelled by Mr Navalny as he seeks to bolster his attempt to run for president in the 2018 elections.

President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AP
President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AP

Many of the protesters are young people who have grown up during Mr Putin's 17 years of ruling Russia.

"Corruption is everywhere," said student Artyom Mikhalin (21), who was attending the protest in central Moscow with a large Russian flag. "It's the hypocrisy of the authorities who say one thing and do another."

Reports of detentions came from more than 100 cities.

Police held 11 people in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, 10 people in the Siberian city of Norilsk, while 36 people were arrested in the western exclave of Kaliningrad, according to OVD-Info, a Russian NGO that tracks political arrests.

The demonstrations coincided with a public holiday, Russia Day, on which Mr Putin handed out awards at a reception in the Kremlin.

In Moscow, protests took place during a city festival featuring men and women dressed in costumes from the late Middle Ages staging mock sword fights and manning reconstructed Viking longboats.

The re-enactments paused as riot police split up protesters and arrested people in the crowd.

Protesters chanted slogans including "Putin is a thief!", "Down with the tsar!", and "1,2,3, Putin get out!" Many demonstrators carried blow-up rubber ducks, which have become the symbol of corruption associated with Dmitry Medvedev after a video report by Mr Navalny alleged that the prime minister's estate includes a duck house in the middle of a pond.

"How much can you sit around at home and feel angry?" said businesswoman Oksana (49), who attended the protest with her 15-year-old daughter. "You have to start with something. The young people who came here today will be the drivers of this."

The scale of the protests is likely to cause consternation in the Kremlin, which has been largely unchallenged by Russia's fractured and divided opposition movement in recent years.

Russian state-owned television channels made no mention of the protests.

A team of Mr Navalny's supporters running an online livefeed of the protests said the electricity was cut to the building where they were working.

Mr Navalny, whose left eye was damaged in April after an attacker threw a green antiseptic liquid over him, faces a short jail sentence for disobeying police orders.

Authorities in Moscow said the protest was illegal and drafted in riot police who fired pepper spray and used batons to break it up, detaining people and bundling them onto buses.

Roman, a 19-year-old student, said Mr Navalny's campaign against official corruption had struck a chord.

"I'm sick of the Putin system," he said. "It's been unchanged for the last 17 years. There is so much evidence that our officials are stealing with impunity."

Dima, an 18-year-old florist, said he wanted Mr Medvedev to return what he said were the politician's ill-gotten gains. Mr Medvedev, a close Putin ally, flatly denies wrongdoing.

"I'm not afraid if I get detained," Dima said.

The Interior Ministry said the turnout at the Moscow protest was about 4,500 - significantly fewer than the numbers estimated by Reuters reporters, who put the turnout in the tens of thousands.

Mr Navalny brought thousands onto the streets across Russia in March, the largest such protests since a wave of anti-Kremlin demonstrations in 2012. Mr Navalny was fined and jailed for 15 days for his role in those protests.

For now, polls suggest Mr Navalny has scant chance of unseating Mr Putin, who enjoys high ratings.

It is unclear too if the Kremlin will even let Mr Navalny run for the presidency.

But the 41-year-old lawyer turned political street campaigner hopes anger over corruption may boost his support.

A video he made accusing Mr Medvedev of living far beyond his means has garnered over 22 million online views to date. (© Daily Telegraph London)


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