Kremlin Downplays Navalny Protests Where Thousands Were Detained
(Bloomberg) -- The Kremlin played down nationwide protests demanding the release of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny -- Russia’s biggest since at least 2018 -- as Western governments condemned the detention of thousands of demonstrators.
Braving clashes with riot police, freezing temperatures and threats they could face charges of “mass disorder” for the unauthorized gatherings, tens of thousands turned out in dozens of cities across the world’s largest country on Saturday. Police detained at least 3,592 people, the OVD-Info monitoring group reported. The U.S. and the European Union urged they be freed.
But while one pollster put the number of protesters in Moscow at as many as 35,000, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed turnout was much smaller, and that backing for President Vladimir Putin remains strong.
“Many will say now that a lot of people attended the illicit rallies,” Peskov told state TV Sunday. “No, few people came out. Many people vote for Putin.”
The showdown in at least 66 cities between the authorities and the anti-Kremlin opposition follows Navalny’s imprisonment a week ago after he returned to Moscow from Berlin, where he’d been recovering from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he and Western governments blame on Putin’s security service. The Kremlin denies responsibility.
The U.S. State Department condemned “the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists this weekend in cities throughout Russia.”
“Continued efforts to suppress Russians’ rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, the arrest of opposition figure Alexey Navalny, and the crackdown on protests that followed are troubling indications of further restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms,” spokesman Ned Price said.
Commenting on Twitter, EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell slammed the “widespread arrests” and “disproportionate use of force.”
Despite the crackdown, the demonstrations are poised to continue, with another set for next weekend, according to Leonid Volkov, a top Navalny ally.
Satruday saw Navalny’s wife, Yulia, detained in Moscow before later being released. Lyubov Sobol, another opposition leader, was also taken away by police shortly after arriving.
Protesters chanted “Putin is a thief” and demanded his resignation. Navalny, 44, has continued to challenge him from prison, drawing nearly 70 million views on YouTube for a video investigation into a giant Black Sea palace he says belongs to the president. The Kremlin rejects 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.
Navalny said Friday on Instagram that -- “just in case” -- he has no plans to commit suicide or 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’ll run for a fifth term in 2024. His support fell to a record last year as the economy buckled under the strain of the Covid-19 epidemic.
With Russian parliamentary elections set for September, Navalny is seeking to convert public unhappiness into increased opposition to Putin’s rule.
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