Lockdown, canine and truncheons: The Kremlin’s heavy-handed response to Navalny protestors

The attitude of the authorities ahead of the protests on Sunday in support of the imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was not subtle.

Early in the morning, police cut off the center of Moscow from cars and pedestrians. A dozen subway stations were closed. Thousands of riot police were placed behind concentric metal rings and barking dogs.

Officers talked about crackling tannoys and explained the unprecedented move. Large crowds were undesirable during the pandemic, they said. The cosmonauts – as the riot police are colloquially known – were only there to ensure adequate social distancing and the wearing of masks.

The massive police presence, of course, served a different purpose: to warn people against a repetition of last Saturday’s protest, when it turned out that tens of thousands warned President Vladimir Putin very publicly.

The closure of Moscow city center appeared to give the Kremlin an edge.

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Due to the metal fence lines, Alexey Navalny’s team had to change the location of the rally at the last minute. The shift in focus from Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Russian security agency, to two nondescript subway stations just outside the police ring meant that the protest turned into a cat and mouse day.

The protesters moved from place to place and eventually headed towards the prison where Mr Navalny is being held in northeast Moscow. They have never been able to gather so overwhelmingly as they were last Saturday. The crowd was both more dispersed and less voluminous.

According to the Interior Ministry, only 2,000 people were present in the capital. Opposition groups put the number at tens of thousands. At the same time, the protests maintained a resolutely national reach, with dozens of previously passive cities across Russia banding together in protest against Vladimir Putin.

Some of the most violent clashes took place in St. Petersburg, where the turnout was much higher than in Moscow. There the police built a reputation for brutality in the northern capital. The protesters were hit with tear gas and flying batons. A man’s head was cracked open. Two more were reported unconscious.

Even in Moscow, arrests have been brutal at times, and the use of stun guns has been reported. The police hunted in the usual groups of three and four. Most of the time those arrested did not appear to be guilty of any apparent crime. Sometimes they were marched to the vans politely enough. Another time they were pulled by the neck.

More than 4,000 people were arrested

(Reuters)

Many of those arrested were young. Some cried when they were bundled into the waiting vans. Not all who carried out the arrests were in uniform, one of several aspects of policing that appeared to be torn from the law enforcement playbook next door in Belarus.

Yulia Navalnaya, the opposition leader’s wife, was one of at least 4,000 bundled in vans across the country – a number that is expected to increase. According to Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist who witnessed the arrest, Ms. Navalnaya was first identified by a plainclothes officer before she was approached by riot police. Mr. Parkhomenko himself would be arrested before the day’s end, one of at least 82 journalists arrested nationwide.

When the authorities in Moscow appeared to be gaining the upper hand, some demonstrators expressed frustration at “confusing” signals from Team Navalny. Maria, a public relations manager whose last name was withheld, said the second steps were not well planned.

“With the odds against us we have to play a better game than this,” she told The Independent. “It’s not enough to post news on social media and hope for the best.”

The Kremlin will hope that today marks a turning point after catching up with its imprisoned enemy for two weeks.

A protester holds a toilet brush in hand during a rally in support of the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow

(Reuters)

This week, Vladimir Putin had to deny that he owned an opulent luxury palace after a viral investigation video released from his prison cell by Mr Navalny. The video has been viewed more than 100 million times. On Saturday, Putin’s close friend and judo partner from childhood, Arkady Rotenberg, offered to own the building. He described it as an “apartment-hotel” complex.

However, Mr Navalny’s team hopes to build on the runaway success of the show. They have already announced a follow-up protest for Tuesday – at which point the Kremlin is expected to sentence its most prominent critic to several years in prison.