Alwaght- Moscow police has detained at least 600 people on Saturday in a crackdown on opposition activists who gathered for protest “walks” in objection to some candidates being excluded from the upcoming council election.
According to the Russia Today, one of the first to be detained was Lyubov Sobol, a rejected candidate herself and an ally of opposition figure Aleksey Navalny. The lawyer turned anti-corruption activist had been warned by city authorities against calls for more unsanctioned rallies after she dodged arrest following last Saturday’s gathering which ended up in clashes and mass detentions. Last week, she got away with a fine as a mother of an underage kid.
The rejected candidates have been accused of voter fraud, allegedly “farming” the hundreds of signatures they needed to break through the eligibility barrier. They are appealing the decision, while using protests as a pressure campaign.
Instead of gathering in one place, activists on Saturday chose to walk through Moscow’s iconic 9km-long string of boulevards and squares around the capital’s historical center. Several hundred showed up initially, with rainy weather and the outcome of the July 27 rally – which saw more than a thousand people detained – probably discouraging others.
The exact number of protesters, spread across the boulevards, was hard to estimate, but it was a far cry from the 21,000 marked as “going” or “interested” on the event’s Facebook page. Navalny’s team had used the number when promoting the event. The Russian Interior Ministry said some 1,500 took part in the rally.
Protesters were met with heavy police presence in areas of their planned route, with officers warning them through loudspeakers not to take part in illegal gatherings.
Many local businesses have chosen to stay shut, heeding a warning by municipal authorities that if clashes between protesters and police erupt, it could lead to damages and would be unsafe for customers.
Moscow police said on Saturday evening they have detained some 600 people. Several journalists have complained they were caught up in the arrests. Among them was Dutch reporter Joost Bosman, who tweeted a picture of himself in a police truck.
The request to hold demonstrations this Saturday was rejected earlier this week, with authorities saying the application was submitted too late to negotiate a location that both the city authorities and the organizers would agree upon. Meanwhile, at least three separate rallies have been sanctioned for August 10 and 11. The protest organizers have said they are still in talks with authorities over the details of the gatherings.
Opposition forces in Russia seem to have been energized by the outcome of last week’s unsanctioned protest, which led to a stand-off with police, where a large number of protesters were detained. A handful of demonstrators have been charged with crimes like attacking the police or bringing melee weapons to a public gathering.
The opposition said the police action last week was disproportionately harsh and unjustified, and called for doubling down the pressure. Several of the candidates who called for protests have been slapped with detentions ranging from 10 to 30 days for breaking Russia’s rules on how mass gatherings can be held.
Whether the opposition's sentiment about last Saturday is shared by the general population in Russia is a different issue altogether. An opinion poll by VTSIOM conducted after the previous rally showed that 61 percent of Muscovites agreed that the police can use “harsh measures” in response to an unsanctioned gathering as long as they stay within the confines of the law. The poll was called a poor indicator of the public mood by supporters of the protest, since they consider the police action illegal.
The divided attitude to the wave of protests is reflected in what Russian public figures have said about it. A number of celebrities voiced their support, saying the authorities did go too far in their response to last Saturday’s protests. Others warned opposition activists against putting their trust in leaders, who are encouraging them to break the law just for the sake of escalation.