Police detained over a hundred opposition activists on Saturday for taking part in a wave of anti-Kremlin protests across Russia in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Under gray skies and intermittent rain, over two thousand people gathered in central Moscow’s Pushkin Square and chanted “Russia will be free” and “Russia without Putin” before walking towards the Kremlin and parliament.
The protest came ahead of Russia presidential election in March 2018.
The authorities said most of the protests were illegal because they had not been officially approved beforehand.
Police briefly detained a few people, however, did not charge anyone.
It was a different story at rallies in other cities, however, the OVD-Info monitoring group, a non-profit organisation, said that 132 people were detained in 25 towns across the country.
Navalny, who is serving a 20-day jail term for violating rules on public meetings, called the rally in Moscow and other cities to coincide with Putin’s 65th birthday.
Putin, who has dominated Russia’s political landscape for almost 18 years, is widely expected to run for what would be his fourth term.
Navalny hopes to run too, in spite the central election commission declaring him ineligible due to a suspended prison sentence he says was politically-motivated.
One of the Moscow protesters held a homemade poster of Putin sitting on a mountain of banknotes, wearing a crown with the legend: “Happy Birthday you little thief!”
Others carried copies of the Russian constitution and posters citing their right to protest.
Some of the protesters waved Russian flags while a few carried inflatable yellow ducks, a jokey reference to the fact that Navalny accused Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of owning a lavish estate with a duck house.
Medvedev called the allegations against him politically-motivated nonsense.
In St. Petersburg, Putin’s home city, some 1,500 activists waved red and white banners in Navalny’s support, gathered in a large public square before heading for the city’s main street shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Freedom.”
The size of Saturday’s Moscow rally and others across Russia looked more modest than Navalny-backed mass protests in March and June which were widely recognised to be some of the biggest since 2012.
Many of the Moscow protesters were teenagers or in their twenties.
Carrying a yellow duck, Ulugbek Apsapayev, 17, said he had turned up because he wanted a better future for Russia.
“The duck is a sign that we support Alexei Navalny who also wants only good things for the country.
“But unfortunately we only have Vladimir Putin and his gang in power.”
Putin is popular across the country, especially outside major cities where his strong leadership style and tough foreign policy stance goes down well.
He is expected to confirm later this year that he will run for another six-year term.
Opinion polls show he would comfortably beat Navalny if the opposition leader was allowed to run.
Navalny says such polls are meaningless because there is no fair political competition.
Moscow authorities had refused to approve Saturday’s rally and such events have often ended with mass detentions, but a Reuters reporter on the scene said police largely showed restraint this time.
According to the report, at a similar rally in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, the police also detained at least eight people among a crowd of over 1,000 protesters.
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