Anti-government demonstrations took place in Moscow and other major Russian cities on Sunday in protest against official corruption within the government under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Police reportedly detained more than 700 protesters in Moscow alone, including the leader of the opposition: Alexei Navalny; who was held overnight and pending arraignment. As of right now, there is no estimate of the exact turnout, but this is suspected to be the largest anti-government protest since 2012 when reportedly thousands spoke out against the Kremlin over alleged voter fraud. An independent Russian radio station estimated a total of 60,000 participated in 82 protests across Russia; and the number of detentions in Moscow, as well as the number of riot police, were the highest seen since 2012.
In 2012, Russia had a parliamentary election that opposition leaders declared fraudulent, and Vladimir Putin accused Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at that time, of inciting the protests. No comment on these protests has been issued by the White House at this time.
Alexei Navalny, the leader of the opposition, is campaigning for the presidency in next year’s election despite doubts about his eligibility and called the protests after releasing a film which displayed lavish vineyards, yachts, and mansions worth more than $1 billion, allegedly belonging to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the government has denied those charges. Navalny emerged in 2012 as an anti-corruption whistleblower, he has also been the target of fraud and embezzlement which he claims is politically motivated. In 2013, he was convicted of siphoning money off a lumber sale; the European Court of Human Rights declared this case “prejudicial” saying Navalny was denied right to a fair trial. In November of 2016, Russia’s Supreme Court declared a retrial, Navalny was convicted and handed a five-year suspended sentence in February. By Russian law, his prevents him from running for president.
Russian media reported detentions in Vladivostok, Siberia, and cities in central Russia where organizers of the protest reported a turnout in the low thousands. A turnout of over 10,000 was reported in St. Petersburg with the number of detentions landing just over 100. Video footage from security cameras in Moscow displayed thousands gathering in central locations of the city with scattered signs and anti-government chants. Authorities had previously refused permits for the protest, and organizers called on participants to turn out and walk.
Russian police indicated the turnout in Moscow at about 8,000, but photos from the scene, as well as media coverage, proved the numbers appear much larger. They responded to the demonstrations with huge numbers of riot police, equipped with barricades and tear gas.
Navalny organized a live internet broadcast of the demonstrations through his Anti-Corruption Fund and was raided by riot police on air. The staff is was detained on suspicion of extremism, according to a fund spokesperson. Alec Luhn, an American reporter for the Guardian was also detained.
The Russian media played a big part in the publicity of this demonstration, providing sporadic coverage; a senior lawmaker, Frants Klintsevich, from the United Russia party appeared sympathetic to the participants’ concerns, “these demonstrations probably raise a lot of justified criticisms and concerns.”
The authorities were counting on fear of arrest to keep people away from these types of demonstrations. On Friday, senior Russian police official Alexander Gorovoi warned that police would “bear no responsibility for any possible negative consequences” and Putin’s spokesman said that telling people to come to rallies was “illegal.”