Protesters Gather in 100 Cities Across Russia; Top Putin Critic Is Arrested

Protesters Gather in 100 Cities Across Russia; Top Putin Critic Is Arrested

MOSCOW — The Russian police arrested hundreds of people in nationwide anti-corruption protests on Sunday, including the opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in Moscow, where thousands gathered for the biggest demonstration in five years against President Vladimir V. Putin.

The protest in the capital took the form of a synchronized walk along a major shopping street to avoid a ban on unsanctioned stationary gatherings. It coincided with similar rallies in 99 cities across the country — from Vladivostok in the far east to Kaliningrad in the west — according to the organizer, Mr. Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation.

All but 17 of these, the foundation said, had been declared illegal by the authorities.

In Moscow, some protesters tried to block security vans with cars, and the authorities deployed the riot police and surveillance helicopters. But they mostly avoided the brutal measures used in neighboring Belarus on Saturday against protesters in the capital, Minsk, and other cities.

The police in Belarus beat and arrested hundreds of people who tried to gather for the latest in demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994.

The protests in Russia on Sunday — nominally against corruption but also a rare show of public defiance against Mr. Putin, who has found a fierce and enduring critic in Mr. Navalny — were the largest coordinated display of public dissatisfaction since anti-Kremlin demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, after an election that was tainted by fraud.

Protesters tried to prevent a police van from taking Mr. Navalny away and chanted: “This is our city. This is our city.” Others shouted, “Russia without Putin,” and held up pieces of paper denouncing the Russian president and his allies as thieves.

In a Twitter post, Mr. Navalny urged his followers to continue with the demonstration after he was grabbed by police officers as he tried to join the crowds along Tverskaya Street in the center of Moscow.

“Guys, I’m O.K.,” he wrote in a message in Russian. “No need to fight to get me out. Walk along Tverskaya. Our topic of the day is the fight against corruption.”

Demonstrators called for the resignation of the prime minister over corruption allegations.

The Moscow Police Department said on its website that “around 500” people had been arrested in the city for taking part in an “unapproved public event.” OVD-info, a group that monitors arrests, said the number of arrests in Moscow was at least 1,000.

Instead of waving big banners with antigovernment slogans as in previous protests, most of those who joined Sunday’s walk on Tverskaya Street displayed their feelings more discreetly. Some waved Russian flags, cloaking their opposition in the same patriotism that Mr. Putin has used so successfully to boost his popularity.

Others carried easily hidden signs featuring pictures of ducks, a reference to a claim by Mr. Navalny that corrupt officials even build houses for their ducks. Among those arrested in Moscow were Russian and foreign journalists, the leader of a small opposition party, Nikolai Lyaskin — who said he was hit around the head by police officers and taken to a hospital — and a British student, Gregory Hill, 17.

Demoralized and divided since the post-2011 election protests, which fizzled amid a wave of arrests and convictions, Russia’s opposition has struggled to make its voice heard over a din of pro-government sentiment on state-controlled television, which invariably presents opponents of Mr. Putin as traitors in cahoots with the West.

But Mr. Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption campaigner who helped lead the 2011-12 protests, has shown a knack for turning repressive action against him and his followers to his own advantage. When an assailant doused him in a green liquid in Siberia last week, he exulted that his face made him look like a superhero.

Instead of directly attacking Mr. Putin, who is hugely popular outside more liberal-leaning cities like Moscow, Mr. Navalny has focused on rallying support by exposing corruption, an issue that alarms even many of Mr. Putin’s supporters.

Mr. Putin, who is widely expected to seek another term as president in elections next year, has ruled Russia as president or prime minister since the former president, Boris N. Yeltsin, resigned on Dec. 31, 1999. He faces no credible opposition other than that mobilized by Mr. Navalny, the founder and leader of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption.

The opposition leader has declared his intention to run in the 2018 presidential race, despite a criminal conviction in February on fraud charges that made him ineligible to compete in the election but was widely viewed as a political ploy to keep him out of the race.

Russian officers detaining a man during the demonstration.

Even if Mr. Navalny manages to compete for the presidency, he has little chance of winning. But his presence on the ballot would end what since 2000 have been a series of tightly choreographed presidential contests that resembled coronations.

Dmitri Charishnikov, a 36-year-old web designer who answered Mr. Navalny’s call to walk up and down Tverskaya Street, said protests would change nothing as most Russians “believe what they see on television” and strongly support Mr. Putin. But he added that he still wanted to show that “another Russia still exists.”

Nearby, a police officer shouted through a bullhorn that all those walking in the area were “participants in an unsanctioned gathering” and must immediately disperse or risk prosecution.

Another protester, Ilya Amutov, 25, said: “Russia is divided into two totally different worlds. There are those who believe in fairy tales about how great Russia is doing — 86 percent of the people believe this — and the rest of us who live in cities or have more education.”

“There is a Russia that believes in myths and a Russia that believes in reality,” he added, complaining that corruption was eating away at the country.

State television, the main source of news for most Russians, responded to the protests by ignoring them. Vesti Nedeli, Russia’s most popular news program, devoted its Sunday evening broadcast to celebrating Russian military heroes and denouncing crime and corruption — in Ukraine.

In a report published this month, Mr. Navalny detailed how Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev, a close ally of Mr. Putin’s, had built a lavish empire of mansions, country estates, luxury yachts, an Italian vineyard and an 18th-century palace near St. Petersburg.

Mr. Navalny called for the protests after Russia’s Parliament, which is dominated by United Russia — a political party loyal to Mr. Putin — ignored demands for an investigation into accusations of corruption by senior government officials.

By dusk on Sunday, the protests in Moscow had wound down after sporadic scuffles between the police and protesters.

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