(Bloomberg) -- Supporters of opposition leader Alexey Navalny heeded his call to turn out Saturday for nationwide protests to mark President Vladimir Putin’s birthday -- though the numbers were sharply down on earlier demonstrations.
Navalny, who’s serving a 20-day sentence for organizing an illegal demonstration, recently has drawn thousands of people to a series of campaign events across Russia in support of his bid to run for president in March.
About 1,000 people crowded into Moscow’s central Pushkin Square, some holding Russian flags and plastic yellow ducks that have become a symbol of government corruption. Later, shouting “Down with the Czar” and “Putin Thief,” they walked past the Parliament building near the Kremlin, flanked by riot police. In contrast to major protests that took place earlier this year, the security forces arrested few demonstrators in Moscow.
"I came here to show I don’t agree with the political system today," said Olga Mytina, a 24-year-old teacher. She predicted "mass protests" after the presidential election.
The scale of the latest demonstrations organized by Navalny, who inspired the largest anti-government protests in at least five years in March and June, will be closely watched in the Kremlin as a sign of the depth of his support as Putin prepares to seek a record fourth term.
The opposition leader called for protests in more than 80 cities on Saturday, including Moscow and Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. Outside the capital, the numbers ranged from 1,000 in St. Petersburg, and from dozens to hundreds in cities elsewhere, Meduza reported. About 140 people were detained in 25 cities, it said, citing activists. In the two previous protests, Navalny managed to rally tens of thousands of people across Russia.
The anti-corruption activist has announced his candidacy for next year’s presidential elections but officials say Navalny is barred from running because of a fraud conviction that he has dismissed as politically motivated.
If Navalny doesn’t get onto the ballot in the presidential vote, he’ll just receive "a launch-pad to get more people onto the street," said Vladimir Nemykh, an 18-year-old student who was at the Moscow protest.
Putin, who turned 65 Saturday, said this week he hasn’t yet decided whether he will run but that he expected candidates to announce in November or December.
“Let Putin listen and go into well-deserved retirement,” Navalny said in a message from prison posted on his Facebook account. “He’s been in power for 18 years, which is long enough.”
Navalny, who got enough votes to nearly force a run-off against a Putin ally in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, emerged as a key organizer of mass protests that erupted over alleged ballot-rigging in 2011-2012, the biggest since the Kremlin boss took power almost two decades ago.