Russian police arrested and later released opposition leader Alexei Navalny soon after he appeared on Moscow’s main thoroughfare and started walking towards Kremlin to join a protest against a ‘sham’ presidential election on March 18.
The authorities had not sanctioned the protest and police officers surrounded Navalny as he chanted “Swindlers and thieves”.
When he resisted arrest, they pinned him to the ground before dragging him into a waiting patrol van. As he was being taken to a police station, Navalny urged Muscovites to take to the streets despite his arrest. “You are not rallying for me, but for yourselves and your future,” he tweeted.
Navalny was later released. But his lawyer Olga Michailova said he would have to remain in contact with the authorities, the Tass said.
At least 240 people were detained at Navalny rallies throughout the country on Sunday.
Navalny was seen as the only formidable candidate against President Vladimir Putin who is seeking a fourth term. But towards December-end last year, Russia’s Central Electoral Commission ruled that Navalny was not eligible to stand for office because of an embezzlement charge. The Supreme Court upheld the poll panel’s ruling.
Navalny responded by threatening to organise nationwide protests against the upcoming election. His strategy is to drastically bring down the voter turnout by calling for election boycott. Kremlin wants a higher voter turnout to ensure that Putin wins by a huge margin.
Navalny’s grassroots campaigns were a hit as people who attended them were hoping things will be better after Putin. His campaign pitch was fight against corruption and that touched a chord with a section of the public.
However, only some 3,000 people turned up for the rally in Moscow on Sunday against tens of thousands in March and June last year. But the protesters chanted, “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin”. They refused to leave after police asked them to disperse.
Campaign office raided
A few hours before the rally, police raided the Moscow headquarters of Navalny’s grassroots campaign saying they were looking for a ‘bomb’, Navalny said on Twitter.
Officers broke down the door while staffers were filming a video message. Several staff members were detained.
In Saint Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, some 1,000 people rallied chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a thief.”
In the Ural city of Yekaterinburg, around 1,000 people rallied, with the city’s mayor joining the crowd.
In the meantime, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has warned that unsanctioned rallies would lead to “certain consequences” — a thinly-veiled threat of punishment.