Tens of thousands challenge Putin's authority
The EU has called on Russia to release "without delay the peaceful demonstrators that have been detained" after a protest in Moscow.
Tens of thousands of people protested against corruption in Russia on Sunday (26 March) in the biggest challenge to Kremlin authority in five years.
The rallies were prompted by allegations that Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev had amassed an illicit fortune, but they also voiced anger against Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Between 20,000 and 60,000 people took part in more than 80 cities across the country, with the largest protest of some 10,000 reported in central Moscow. Smaller rallies were as far afield as Vladivostock in the Far East, and in Makhachkala in the North Caucasus.
The protests were the biggest since the winter of 2012, following flawed presidential elections, and come ahead of Putin’s next re-election bid in 2018.
Police in riot equipment arrested around 1,000 people in Moscow alone, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who called for the demonstrations earlier this month in a YouTube clip alleging that prime minister Dmitry Medvedev had amassed a $1 billion fortune.
The clip attracted more than 11 million views on the social media website.
A recent investigation by the OCCRP, a club of investigative reporters in eastern Europe, also showed that the Russian elite had transferred more than $20 billion in illicit funds out of the country.
Protesters on Sunday held banners, such as “Russia without Putin”, waved Russian flags in a show of patriotism, and carried rubber ducks in reference to Navalny’s claim that Medvedev’s palatial homes included a special building to house ducks.
“You can’t detain everyone who’s against corruption. There are millions of us,” Navalny tweeted from police custody.
Others detained included Nikolai Lyaskin, an opposition leader; Gregory Hill, a 17-year old British student; and Alec Luhn, an American journalist who writes for the British newspaper The Guardian.
The police were accused of doling out scattered beatings, but did not react with the same brutality shown by Belarus law enforcement agencies against protesters in Minsk on Saturday, where up to 600 people called for the abolition of a new tax.
The US state department in a comment on Sunday said it “strongly condemns the detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters” in Russia.
"Detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers, and journalists is an affront to core democratic values,” its spokesman, Mark Toner, said.
Ben Sasse, a senator from the Republican Party of the Russia-friendly US president Donald Trump, added: “Putin’s thugocracy is on full display. The United States government cannot be silent about Russia’s crackdown on peaceful protesters”.
The EU foreign service said Russian police had “prevented the exercise of basic freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly - which are fundamental rights enshrined in the Russian constitution”.
It also called for Russia “to release without delay the peaceful demonstrators that have been detained”. It went on to condemn the events in Minsk on Saturday, saying: “The response by the security services was indiscriminate and inappropriate”.
The Russian authorities said Sunday’s protests were illegitimate and branded Navalny as a “crook”.
The Belarusian foreign ministry reacted by accusing the protesters of intending to use violence, adding: “In order to be consistent, European institutions and policymakers should express ‘concern’ over numerous arrests on the eve of the celebration of the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome on 25 March, and active usage of water cannons, tear gas and other non-lethal devices to disperse demonstrations in European capitals”.
Speaking to EUobserver from Moscow on Friday, Mikhail Kasyanov, another Russian opposition leader and former prime minister, called on the EU to keep a “principled position” on Russia by maintaining economic sanctions and by voicing support for Russian reformers.
He said his party’s activists were being intimidated by the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, with threats of job losses or violence if they kept up their work.
Kasyanov added that while the mood in the opposition was “gloomy” and “nervous”, many people in the Russian middle classes were increasingly coming to blame Putin for the country’s economic woes.
He said the West should not expect much from the 2018 election, which would be “an imitation” of democracy, just as in the last vote in 2011, but he said Russian society was already “divided 50-50” against Putin.