Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny got the massive demonstrations against corruption he wanted on Monday, along with a fresh stint in jail he probably expected. Central Moscow was jammed with demonstrators yelling, “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia without Putin!”
Russian police waded into the crowd with batons and pepper spray, detaining more than a thousand protesters by the end of the day. Some estimates say the total is closer to two thousand.
Navalny himself never made it to the protest, as he was arrested while leaving his flat. He posted a photo of the swarm of officers descending upon him on Twitter with the sarcastically jaunty message, “Happy Russia Day!” Russia Day, a public holiday, fell on Monday.
One of the charges leveled against Navalny is that he broke an agreement with Moscow police by relocating his rally at the last minute. Police said they would allow the demonstration to proceed at the new location, provided the participants did not shout slogans or wave placards, both of which they proceeded to do with gusto. Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s FSB security service, described the change of venue as a “provocation.”
Rallies took place in an excess of 180 locations across Russia on Monday, with a number of arrests reported in cities like Vladivostok and St. Petersburg. Most of the detainees reportedly face small fines or short jail sentences. Navalny himself has been sentenced to 30 days in jail.
“The United States strongly condemns the detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters throughout Russia. Detaining peaceful protesters and journalists is an affront to core democratic values,” press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday.
“The United States will monitor the situation and we will call on the government Russia to immediately release all peaceful protesters. The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law and the ability to exercise their right without fear or retribution,” said Spicer.
“We disagree when the question is put this way. This is not the sort of calls we should be listening to,” Spicer’s opposite number at the Kremlin, spokesman Dmitry Peskov, responded on Tuesday.
“As for those who indulged in provocative actions, breaking the law, in this case the authorities took action against them in full compliance with our legislation,” Peskov insisted.
Radio Free Europe reports that Russian opposition leaders are not entirely supportive of Navalny’s tactics. Among other criticisms, they said changing the venue for the protest on short notice depressed turnout, alienated Moscow residents, and created an unnecessary confrontation with police.
“Navalny drummed up some more PR for himself, and those who hit the streets for him will earn some jail time at best,” said one critical activist, while another declared Navalny has “weakened the protest movement.”
Navalny pronounced himself satisfied with the turnout, especially in locations outside Moscow.
“I rate today’s actions very well. We had an excellent geographic reach. A lot of people came out,” he told reporters at the courthouse, where he was sentenced to 30 days in jail. “There were rallies in cities where they’d never happened before.”
Navalny further argued that moving the location of the Moscow demonstration was not a stunt but a necessity because city authorities pressured contractors into withholding the sound and stage equipment needed. He also argued that the relocated gathering was legal under Russian constitutional guarantees of citizens’ rights to assembly.