MOSCOW: Several thousand supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny rallied across Russia on President Vladimir Putin’s birthday on Saturday, as police arrested more than 100 people.
A thousand protesters turned up in rainy Moscow and 3,000 more people took to the streets in Putin’s hometown of Saint Petersburg later Saturday, with protests also taking place in dozens of other cities.
The protests – called by Navalny after he was sent to jail for 20 days this week — were markedly smaller than the rallies he mustered in March and June when tens of thousands took to the streets against corruption.
But police in Moscow also showed restraint, allowing the crowd of mostly young protesters to march along Tverskaya Avenue, the capital’s main thoroughfare, in an apparent effort to avoid clashes on Putin’s birthday.
Some 124 people were detained in the nationwide protests, some of them violently, said OVD-Info, a group that monitors politically motivated arrests.
That figure is much lower than the earlier rallies. Police arrested more than 1,000 people in Moscow alone during the March demonstration.
“This is unprecedented for Moscow,” OVD-Info spokesman Artyom Platov told AFP.
In Moscow, the crowd chanted “Happy birthday” and “Russia without Putin” and many held copies of the constitution and flags amid honks of support from passing cars.
Hundreds of policemen, some in riot gear and with dogs, were out on the streets to prevent people from going to Red Square.
Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption campaigner who aims to run in a presidential election next March, was arrested late last month as he was planning to travel to a rally in a provincial city.
A court on Monday sentenced him to 20 days in jail on charges of repeatedly violating a law on organising public meetings.
Officials say he is not eligible to run for president because he is serving a suspended sentence for fraud.
Igor Klimov, a 20-year-old protester in Saint Petersburg, said he was not happy with Putin.
“He has been in power for as long as I can remember myself and there’s corruption everywhere,” he told AFP.
Svetlana Kiseleva, a 20-year-old student in Moscow, said she did not support Navalny but had joined the rally to demand political competition.
“It’s important to have a choice, to have an opposition,” she told AFP. “I still think he would be better than Putin anyway.”
Orest Cherchesov, a 43-year-old manager, also said he was not a Navalny fan but wanted to see competitive elections.
“There are people who think differently in Russia, just like there were in Nazi Germany,” he said. “I believe he has the right to run in the elections.”
Putin, who has ruled since 1999, turned 65 — the retirement age for Russian officials — and many protesters urged him to step down.
He said this week he has not yet decided whether to seek another six-year term. But he is widely expected to run in — and win — the March election.
‘Gulag awaiting us’
Navalny’s campaign team had released a series of video addresses of prominent figures calling on Russians to take to the streets.
“Gulag is awaiting us without political competition,” entrepreneur Evgeny Chichvarkin, who lives in self-imposed exile in Britain, said in the video.
Navalny, the Yale-educated lawyer with a street-smart image and a penchant for catchy slogans, compared life under Putin’s regime to a forced diet of “turnip.”
“If we do nothing, they will be feeding us this damn turnip for the rest of our lives. And our children too,” he said in an address dictated from his cell this week.
The Kremlin said Putin received on his birthday “numerous congratulatory messages and telegrams” including from 11 heads of state and later met with members of the Russian security council to discuss Syria.