Russian police on Sunday detained opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a rally in Moscow which he had called to protest upcoming polls expected to extend Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin term to 2024.
Surrounded by supporters, the 41-year-old chanted “Swindlers and thieves” before being detained by police shortly afterwards at an unsanctioned gathering in the city centre amid heavy police presence.
“I have been detained,” Navalny tweeted. “This means nothing. Come to Tverskaya (Avenue),” he said, referring to Moscow’s main thoroughfare.
“You are not rallying for me, but for yourselves and your future.”
Heeding a call by President Putin’s bete noire, thousands rallied in dozens of cities to protest upcoming “pseudo-elections,” with many chanting and brandishing placards saying “Voters’ strike.”
Several thousand turned up for the rally in Moscow where authorities dramatically beefed up security, dispatching police vans and passenger buses to the city centre.
Around 90 people were detained across the country, according to OVD-Info, an independent group which monitors crackdowns on demonstrations.
“These are not elections because we already know the result. I will not go and vote,” Elena Ruzhe, 62, told AFP in central Moscow.
“I’m not scared to protest,” said the former culture ministry worker.
Protester Alexandra Fedorova, who wore a fur coat, said it was wrong not to let Navalny take part in the vote.
“I don’t see a future. There is nobody to vote for,” the 27-year-old said.
Protesters expressed similar sentiments in the second city of Saint Petersburg, the Russian leader’s hometown, where at least 1,000 people rallied, some chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a thief.”
“I want change,” Andrei Petrov, 20, told AFP in the former imperial capital. “We are tired of living in this quagmire.”
Earlier in the day opposition supporters protested in far eastern Russia and Siberia, including in the northern city of Yakutsk where Russians rallied despite temperatures of around minus 45 Celsius (minus 49 Fahrenheit).
Navalny — seen as the only politician with enough stamina to take on Putin — has built a robust protest movement despite constant police harassment, tapping into the anger of a younger generation yearning for change.