update: Navalny Supporters Being Beaten, Arrested As Protests Begin To Demand His Release
Large crowds of demonstrators in Russia were braving brutally cold weather and threats of police crackdowns on January 23 to call for the release of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, a Kremlin critic jailed last weekend upon returning to Moscow after treatment in Germany for Novichok poisoning.
The first rallies began in Siberia and the Far East with hundreds of protesters in Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, and other cities taking to the streets despite subfreezing temperatures and a heavy security presence.
The OVD-Info group, which monitors police activity, reported dozens of arrests — adding that authorities were beating some of those being detained.
Video from Vladivostok showed police in riot gear with truncheons drawn charging at a large crowd to disperse the protesters.
In the Far East city of Yakutsk, protesters were out on the streets despite strong winds and temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius.
In Moscow, which usually draws the largest rallies, protesters plan to meet in the central Pushkin Square.
Ahead of the coordinated action in at least 65 Russian cities, authorities detained Navalny allies and warned social-media platforms to pull down posts calling on people to attend the “unsanctioned” rallies or face hefty fines.
The protests are a high-stakes test of Navalny’s support in the depths of the Russian winter during a pandemic and economic downturn ahead of legislative elections expected in September.
They pit public outrage over the Kremlin’s treatment of its chief critic following his recovery in Germany from poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent against how much of a threat President Vladimir Putin sees from the 44-year-old lawyer he has repeatedly sought to downplay.
“The Kremlin shot itself in the foot with a completely hysterical campaign to try to prevent the protests,” Leonid Volkov, coordinator of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), told Current Time ahead of the protests. Current Time is the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
“Should demonstrations on January 23 not bring about an immediate result, which is clear — we demand a release of Aleksei Navalny — then such actions will be repeated over and over again,” Volkov said.
Authorities ramped pressure in recent days on Navalny and his associates through a series police raids and detentions, signaling an intent to crack down harder with stark warnings that police would be out in full force.
Navalny’s team urged Russians to ignore official warnings to stay at home.
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh used Twitter on January 22 to encourage Russians to join the rallies after she was sentenced for organizing an unsanctioned event.
“Arrested for 9 days. Well, you know what to do. January 23 at 14:00, the central streets of your cities. Come!” Yarmysh tweeted.
Ahead of the protests, universities and colleges across Russia reportedly urged students not to attend rallies, with some saying they may be subject to disciplinary action, including expulsion.
Russia’s largest social network, VKontakte, blocked all the pages dedicated to the rallies after Roskomnadzor, the national telecommunications watchdog, announced it would fine social-media companies for encouraging minors to participate in the protests.
That action came amid media reports of calls for demonstrations — and videos of school students replacing portraits of Putin in their classrooms with that of Navalny — going viral among teenagers on social network TikTok.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on January 22 that “it is only natural that there are warnings…about the possible consequences related to noncompliance with the law” since there are calls for “unauthorized, unlawful events.
Navalny, Putin’s most prominent critic, was taken into police custody shortly after his arrival in Russia on January 17 from Berlin where he was treated for a near-fatal poisoning in August with a Soviet-style chemical from the Novichok group.
At a hastily arranged hearing at a police station on January 18, a judge authorized Navalny’s detention for 30 days pending a ruling on his suspended sentence that could be revoked and replaced by prison time, allegedly for parole violations.
In a message on Instagram via his lawyer late on January 22, he said from a Moscow jail cell that he wanted people to know he was in good physical and mental health.
“Just in case, I am announcing that I don’t plan to either hang myself on a window grill or cut my veins or throat open with a sharpened spoon,” the post said.
“I use the staircase very carefully. They measure my blood pressure every day and it’s like a cosmonaut’s so a sudden heart attack is ruled out. I know for a fact that there are many good people outside my prison and that help will come,” he added.
Navalny has accused Putin of ordering his assassination, which combined with his detention has sparked widespread Western condemnation and threats of further sanctions.
Human Rights Watch on January 22 chided Russian authorities to cease what it called “unlawful attacks on freedom of expression and instead focus on ensuring safety measures to protect those who wish to assemble peacefully.”
“In the past year Russian authorities have effectively banned all peaceful protest by the political opposition and prosecuted anyone who has refused to comply,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Dozens of influential Russians, including actors, musicians, journalists, writers, athletes and popular bloggers, have come out with statements in support of Navalny, and some promised to attend the demonstrations.
Bloomberg, citing two sources close to Russia’s leaders, reported on January 22 that the Kremlin intends to imprison Navalny for “several years, or even more.”
Authorities accuse Navalny of violating the terms of a suspended sentence in a 2014 conviction for financial misdeeds, including violating the terms of parole while convalescing in Germany.
He and supporters reject the charges, saying they are politically motivated to put an end to his anti-corruption work.
Navalny’s latest volley against state corruption — a two-hour video about a $1.36 billion palace on the Black Sea allegedly belonging to Putin — was released just two days after he was detained.
The video has since become the most-watched report ever published by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Peskov said on January 22 that the investigation into Putin and the Black Sea mansion was a “lie” and a “cut-and-paste job.”