More Than 200 Russian Citizens Detained During Anti-Putin Protests

Instead of celebrating, thousands of Russian citizens across the country spent Vladimir Putin’s 65th birthday protesting the Kremlin and his restrictive control of elections and free speech. Alexei Navalny directed the protest rallies. Navalny is currently Putin’s only tangible political opponent and is currently serving a 20-day jail sentence for organizing unauthorized public meetings. The number of arrests reported vary, but the OVD-Info monitoring group reports that the Russian police detained approximately 250-290 people, with over 60 in St. Petersburg (Putin’s hometown) alone. Russian authorities refused to officially authorize the protests, but Navalny argues that the right to protest is protected by the constitution. Many Russian citizens agree, and turned up to protest Putin’s leadership and the lack of speech and electoral freedoms in Russia.

Navalny, an anti-corruption lawyer, has stated that he plans to run in the upcoming March election against Putin, who has served as either President or Prime Minister of Russia since 1999. Putin is expected to confirm his run for another term in the next couple of months. Opinion polls in Russia show that Putin still has a lot of supporters in Russia and would securely beat Navalny in an election, but Navalny says that these polls are meaningless because the government manipulates political competition in Russia.

Navalny, however, carries an embezzlement charge that, under Russian law, makes him ineligible to run in the election. He claims that the conviction was wrongful and politically motivated with the purpose of stopping his campaign against Putin. Navalny has already been arrested and jailed three times this year for his activism. The Guardian stated that in a message from prison this week, Navalny “urged his supporters to demand that the Kremlin allow genuine political competition.”

Reuters describes the events in Moscow, where protesters chanted “Russia will be free” and “Russia without Putin” on their march from Pushkin Square towards the Kremlin and parliament. The police blocked the line of protesters, but did not arrest anyone in Moscow; the rest of Russia was a different story. A Reuters witness claims to have seen the police roughly detain a number of people in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. The Guardian reports that a woman suffered a severe head injury when detained by police and another had her leg broken when the police tried to disperse the crowds at the protests.

This is the third mass protest that Navalny has organized across Russia, and all three ended in police interference and mass detentions. One protester in St. Petersburg told CNN, “I’m not satisfied with the current situation in the country. I’m not happy with the authorities. We practically don’t have freedom of speech. We have strict censorship on television, and the only contender opposed to Putin isn’t allowed in any way to take part in the elections.” Additionally, a young Russian student said, “I’m here today to stand up for my rights… I want to live in a country where there are fair elections.”

On Saturday, Amnesty International called for Russian authorities to immediately release the detainees and initiate investigations into the “abusive force” against the “scores of peaceful protesters.” On Sunday, the Kremlin announced that they released all the detained protesters, but some civil organizations in Russia reported new detentions the same day.

Denis Krivosheev, the Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International, condemned this restriction to free speech: “The Kremlin’s intent is clear – to choke the life out of the protest movement – but it has also become clear in recent months that this reproachful goal cannot be achieved. Peaceful protest is a right, and many people in Russia want to exercise that right. The Russian authorities must immediately begin to respect and protect the rights of these protesters, pure and simple.”

These types of protests are extremely important in countering the restrictions on free speech that Russians have experienced in the past.  Unfortunately, Amnesty International reports that Russian authorities have made it clear that they will reject all of Navalny’s future protest applications regardless of the circumstance.  Allowing peaceful protests to occur is a crucial responsibility of the government to guarantee its citizens’ voices are heard without fear of detention or violence.  Russian citizens’ right to protest against the current leadership in support of Navalny is also the first step towards ensuring fair political competition in the near future.

Jenna Rosenthal