By Celine Aemisegger
Moscow, Jan 31 (efe-epa).- Supporters of Alexei Navalny on Sunday kept the pressure on President Vladimir Putin by turning out for large protests all across Russia to demand the release from jail of the opposition leader and to express their indignation with the country’s economic and social situation, and they did so amid significant repressive measures by the government and the arrests of more than 5,000 people.
“I came to defend my rights and the rights of the political prisoners. This is important to me and I think that it should be important to everyone,” student Sofia told EFE as she participated along with thousands of other people in the Moscow protest.
The marches to support Navalny were staged in more than 140 cities from Vladivostok in the far east to Novosibirsk in Siberia, Yekaterinburg in the Urals, St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea and the center of power in Moscow.
The protests came despite the fact that thousands of police were deployed throughout the country to try and prevent a repeat of the images seen around the world on Jan. 23, when more than 110,000 people attended the first protest called by Navalny to challenge the Kremlin.
In Moscow, security forces barred demonstrators from access to Lubyanka Square, where the Federal Security Service – or FSB, formerly the KGB – headquarters is located, but the huge crowd simply moved to other parts of the city each time that the police appeared.
In St. Petersburg, it was impossible to get onto central Nevsky Ave. due to the police presence and so the demonstrators had to gather near the Theater of Youth, Sennaya Square and the Legislative Assembly.
However, all attempts by Russian authorities to block access to the sites where the crowd gathered with barricades, cordons and by closing down certain metro stations were in vain, since tens of thousands of Russians simply returned to the sites by other routes to protest.
The indignation that the Navalny case has caused comes on top of the fact that many Russians are fed up with the economic and social situation in the country, where real incomes fell some 3.5 percent in 2020 and where 19.6 million people live below the subsistence level.
And this indignation has also been fueled by a video posted online by Navalny – with more than 104 million views so far – of an opulent palace worth some $1.37 billion on the shore of the Black Sea allegedly belonging to Putin and which the opposition leader has said constitutes the “biggest bribe in history.”
Across the country on Sunday new scenes were broadcast of police using excessive force to arrest protesters, despite the protests’ peaceful nature. Several people were injured more seriously at various sites during the day.
According to the OVD-Info Web site, which monitors arrests in Russia, more than 5,000 people were taken into custody nationwide, of whom 1,600 were arrested in Moscow and more than 1,100 in St. Petersburg.
There, anti-riot police used pepper spray and electric stun guns to subdue protesters, and employed their truncheons in beating and arresting peaceful demonstrators, according to the independent Meduza Web site.
Among those arrested in Moscow was Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya, who had already been arrested a week ago but who marched with other demonstrators to the capital’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison, where her husband is being held.
Later, Navalnaya was released but she has been ordered to appear in court on Monday for a hearing.
“One for all and all for one,” “Release him” and “Freedom” shouted the demonstrators who managed to get close to the prison shortly before police moved in to block their movements and begin arresting them en masse.
“Putin to prison,” “Russia will be free” and “Freedom for Alexei Navalny” were among the most frequently heard slogans shouted by the protesters.
The man considered by the Kremlin to be Putin’s main enemy is being held in preventive custody after being arrested immediately upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he had recovered for five months after being poisoned in Russia in 2020 with a Soviet-era nerve agent, an attack he blames directly on Putin.
Navalny has been accused by Russian authorities of traveling to Germany and thus failing to abide by the terms of his conditional release from prison after being handed a suspended 3.5-year sentence in 2014, a ruling declared to be arbitrary by the European Court of Human Rights.
A court hearing has been scheduled for next Tuesday to determine if Navalny should remain in prison to continue serving the 3.5-year sentence, a decision that will determine his political future with just months to go before the September legislative elections.