(Bloomberg) -- Several thousand Russians braved sub-zero temperatures to protest against President Vladimir Putin, who’s seeking to prolong his almost two-decade-long rule in March elections.
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who’s been barred from taking part in the March 18 vote, was dragged roughly by police into a bus shortly after he arrived at the demonstration on Moscow’s central thoroughfare, Tverskaya Street, according to a live video feed from the scene. Navalny later said on Twitter that he had been released pending trial, and thanked his supporters.
Moments after he was taken into custody, he wrote on Twitter: “I’ve been detained. That doesn’t matter. Come to Tverskaya. You’re not coming out for me, but for yourself and your future.” Police said later he was detained on suspicion of violating laws governing public protests, the official Tass news reported.
Navalny had called on his supporters to rally in more than 100 cities in a bid to put more pressure on the Kremlin after a series of mass protests last year. Police reported protests in more than 50 cities, according to official media. About 240 people had been detained by 5 p.m. Sunday in Moscow, according to OVD-Info, a monitoring group.
Protesters marched in downtown Moscow, chanting “Putin leave” and defying cold weather and warnings by police that they could face arrest for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration. They briefly blocked traffic at several locations, Tass reported.
“I don’t see any other way to register my protest,” said Anna Kanunikova, a 32-year-old English translator, who was carrying a Russian flag. “The elections aren’t elections. That’s what we came here to say.”
After authorities refused to register his candidacy in the election, Navalny has called on supporters to boycott the vote.
“It’s absolutely clear that the most important thing that any person can do now is to go and protest,” Navalny, 41, said on his blog ahead of Sunday’s demonstration. “Because that’s the only path open to us in Russia, where we’re kept out of elections and the media and you can’t win in court.”
While Putin, 65, is assured of victory with popularity ratings of more than 80 percent, his most prominent opponent is counting on dissatisfaction at stagnant growth and living standards after the longest recession this century has fueled the protest mood. Since two rallies in March and June 2017 attracted tens of thousands of people in up to 100 cities across Russia, enthusiasm has waned somewhat.
In Yakutsk in Siberia Sunday, a handful of supporters braved temperatures of minus 45 Celsius to protest. Police put overall turnout nationally at about 5,000, including about 1,000 in Moscow, but opposition activists have criticized official crowd estimates in the past for understating the numbers.
In Moscow, police officers also arrived at the offices of his Anti-Corruption Foundation, using power tools to cut through the door where supporters were conducting a live YouTube broadcast, Navalny said on a broadcast from a backup studio later.
The authorities have waged a crackdown on Navalny, while avoiding making him a martyr by putting him behind bars for more than about a month at a time. Police have raided his campaign offices and jailed activists. Earlier this month, a Moscow court ordered the organization that funds his presidential campaign dissolved.
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