Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was one of hundreds of people detained across Russia on Sunday after they took part in rallies that called for a nationwide boycott of the country’s upcoming March 18 presidential election.
Marching through central Moscow with Russia’s tricolour and signs denouncing both President Vladimir Putin and the poll, Navalny and at least 16 others were dragged away by interior ministry police shortly after the protestors made their way to Tverskaya Street, the Russian capital’s main thoroughfare located only a short distance from the Kremlin.
“I’ve been detained. That doesn’t matter. Come to Tverskaya. You’re not coming out for me, but for yourself, and your future,” Navalny wrote on Twitter shortly after being detained.
Navalny later confirmed, via Twitter, that he released from custody without being charged. His lawyer told the Reuters news agency that he will face a court hearing for having taken part in an unsanctioned protest.
Images of police armed with truncheons showed them charging into the rally of mostly young opposition supporters, many of whom were chanting “Putin is a thief.” One young protester told reporters that she attended the rally, “Because I hate Putin, not because I like Navalny.”
Earlier in the day, Moscow police raided Navalny’s campaign headquarters in an attempt to block a live broadcast of the nationwide opposition protests.
A similar-sized rally also took place in Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg, where 10 protestors were hauled away by police. Smaller gatherings and additional arrests were reported in Murmansk, a port city of 300,000 people located above the Arctic Circle, as well as in central Russia’s Cheboksary, Ufa, and Kazan – the capital of Tatarstan.
Opposition protestors also turned out to protest in small numbers in several Siberian and Urals cities, including Irkutsk and Ekaterinburg, as well as in Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast.
A nongovernmental human rights project that monitors law enforcement activity in Russia reported that a total of 350 people had been detained across the country.
Barred from running in the next presidential election due to two trumped-up convictions for financial crimes and three other sentences for leading anti-Putin rallies, the 41-year-old Navalny first came into the public eye as a lawyer and anti-corruption blogger taking on the ruling United Russia party in 2008.
Navalny commands strong support from young educated urbanites and what little remains of Russia’s beleaguered pro-democratic elements from the 1990s, while his opposition to Moscow’s support of pro-Russian separatists in the war in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s military intervention to support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has put him in the crosshairs of most Russian lawmakers.
The young charismatic activist isn’t without his critics inside the anti-Kremlin movement. Many Putin opponents have interpreted Navalny’s own statements about Central Asian migrant workers and Moscow’s financial support for its overwhelmingly Muslim regions in the restive North Caucasus as chauvinistic and closer aligned to the views of Russian nationalists than to the liberal opposition.
Navalny’s greatest political achievement came when he captured 30 percent of the vote in 2013 after placing second behind Putin’s handpicked choice for mayor of Moscow – an event many experts believe was a major embarrassment for the Kremlin.
Putin, however, is expected to easily win a new six-year term when Russian voters go to the polls in just over two months. His widely anticipated victory will grant him a fourth term since coming to power in late 1999, making him the country’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Few pundits believe the 65-year-old former KGB colonel will be seriously challenged in the March poll due to the complete absence of political opposition in the Russian government.
Putin’s only legal challenger from the liberal camp is Ksenia Sobchak, a one-time reality TV celebrity and socialite, who is also the daughter of former St. Petersburg mayor, Anatoly Sobchak – Putin’s original patron and political mentor from the early 1990s.
Putin enjoys widespread support from the general population – all of whom are given a steady diet of favourable Putin coverage by the tightly-controlled State media.
The Kremlin-controlled news outlet TASS reported in November 2017 that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to pay an official visit to Moscow in May 2018 to meet with Putin to discuss Russo-Japanese relations.
The reported meeting between the two heads of state is scheduled a full two months after an election that Russian voters are expected to take part in to elect their next president.