MOSCOW – Police arrested more than 200 people in the Far East and Siberia on Saturday as protesters held nationwide rallies to demand the release of detained Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, despite the bitter cold and a ban by authorities.
Navalny called on supporters to protest after he was arrested last weekend when he was returning to Moscow from Germany after being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in August.
Video footage from Vladivostok showed riot police chasing a group of demonstrators down the street, while demonstrators in Khabarovsk, braving temperatures of around -14 degrees Celsius, said “Shame!” Sang. and “Bandits!”
Police in the Siberian city of Yakutsk grabbed a protester’s arms and legs and dragged him into a van, as video footage of the scene showed.
The OVD-Info surveillance group said that 238 people, including 56 in Novosibirsk, had been arrested at the nationwide rallies.
In Moscow, police erected barricades around Pushkinskaya Square when workers were busy re-tiling it. This was an obvious attempt to thwart a demonstration that was due to begin at 1100 GMT.
Police also arrested a number of people who had gathered in the square before the rally, including a lonely picket line.
Navalny, a former lawyer who accused President Vladimir Putin of ordering his murder, could be jailed for years on what he claims to be fabricated. Putin has denied involvement.
Navalny supporters hope that despite the wintry conditions and the coronavirus pandemic, they can produce a demonstration of support for the road against the Kremlin to pressure the authorities to free it.
The West has called on Moscow to let him go, which has created new tensions in already strained relations with Russia as US President Joe Biden takes office.
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To bolster support prior to the protests, Navalny’s team released a video of an opulent palace on the Black Sea that they claimed belonged to Putin, which the Kremlin denied. As of Saturday, the clip had been viewed more than 65 million times.
The authorities had banned the protests in advance. Police cracked down on several Navalny allies who accused them of instigating illegal protests in the run-up to the rallies and detained at least two of them, including the Navalny spokeswoman, for more than a week each.
Navalny’s allies hope to capitalize on the polls, which are pent-up public frustrations over years of falling wages and economic fallout from the pandemic. But Putin’s grip on power seems unassailable and the 68-year-old president regularly has an approval rating of over 60 percent, which is many times higher than Navalny’s.
The US embassy published the places and times of the protests and urged Americans to stay away. The Russian Foreign Ministry called this “gross interference” in the country’s internal affairs.