- - Monday, June 12, 2017

MOSCOW — He has emerged as Vladimir Putin’s worst nightmare, and his refusal to just go away earned opposition leader Alexei Navalny yet another trip to the jailhouse Monday.

In one of the bigger challenges to the Russian president’s increasingly authoritarian rule, more than 1,000 protesters were arrested across the nation after defying police bans on rallying against Mr. Putin’s long rule and demanding an end to high-level corruption.

Despite considerable harassment and physical threats, Mr. Navalny was at the center of the agitation again. He was leading the call for protests over accusations that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accepted over $1 billion in bribes from state banks and Kremlin-friendly oligarchs. Mr. Medvedev denies the claims.

Russia without Putin!” thousands of people chanted on Tverskaya, Moscow’s main street, as riot police in body armor attempted to break up the unsanctioned demonstration. Many protesters held Russian flags and some chanted, “I love Russia!” as squads of riot police dragged them off to waiting police vans. Over 700 people were arrested in Moscow alone, rights groups said.

The protests took place on Russia Day, a national holiday in honor of the declaration of sovereignty in 1990 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In central Moscow, where authorities had organized historical re-enactments to celebrate the holiday, there were often surreal scenes as protesters scaled straw huts occupied by actors dressed as medieval Russian warriors. In another bizarre incident, actors playing the role of Stalin-era secret police handed over a protester to genuine police officers.

Ilya Yashin, a prominent opposition figure, wrote on Twitter that when he asked police why he was being detained, he was told it was because he had failed to celebrate Russia Day “normally.”

The unrest will only sharpen the animosity between an imperial president and his most prominent domestic detractor.

Mr. Navalny, a charismatic 41-year-old lawyer, was arrested as he left his apartment to attend the protest in Moscow. His wife, Yulia, said he was charged with disobeying police orders and now faces up to 15 days in jail for staging unauthorized protests. An online broadcast of the protests by Mr. Navalny’s anti-corruption organization was halted when police cut through cables.

“I’m fed up with Putin and his thieving friends,” Alisa Popova, a 20-year-old photography student, told The Washington Times during the protest in Moscow. “I want a democracy, but basically we have an undeclared monarchy.”

Many protesters chanted, “Down with the tsar,” as they converged near the Kremlin.

Protests also took place in St. Petersburg, Russia’s biggest city, where some 500 people were detained, as well as dozens of other towns and cities across the country. Some, such as Norilsk, a former gulag town in northern Siberia, reportedly witnessed their first opposition rallies. In Sochi, which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, at least 50 people were detained.

State television made no mention of the protests, and Mr. Putin spent part of the day showing children around the Kremlin. Despite claims that the Trump administration has sought to forge a new relationship with the Kremlin, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said at Monday’s briefing that the United States “strongly condemns the detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters throughout Russia.”

“The Russian people deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution,” Mr. Spicer said.

Election maneuvering

Although polls say Mr. Putin remains popular with many Russians, growing economic woes triggered by Western sanctions and low global prices for oil have plunged millions of people into poverty, raising social tensions ahead of next year’s presidential election. Although he has not announced whether he will stand, Russia’s longtime leader is widely expected to secure a fourth term of office that would take him to 2024.

Mr. Navalny wants to challenge Mr. Putin in the election, but Russian officials say previous criminal convictions make him ineligible. In 2013, Mr. Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison on what he says were politically motivated fraud charges, but he was freed the next day after his supporters staged a mass rally outside parliament. His sentence was later commuted to probation on appeal. The Russian Constitution says that only people serving prison time are ineligible to stand.

Mr. Navalny launched an audacious election campaign this year, opening dozens of offices across the country in a bid to force the Kremlin to register him as a presidential candidate. Russia’s state-controlled election committee will rule on his application in December.

Mr. Navalny first emerged as a prominent Kremlin critic during mass anti-Putin protests starting in 2011, cementing his role as a top opposition figure after finishing second in the race for mayor of Moscow on an anti-Putin platform.

Although he is barred from state television, he has won millions of followers across Russia with his online accusations of massive corruption by Mr. Putin and his inner circle. A slick YouTube film that he released this year detailing claims that Mr. Medvedev funneled bribes through shadowy charity organizations into yachts and luxury real estate has been watched over 20 million times. That video sparked massive nationwide street protests in March that resulted in over 1,000 arrests.

Meanwhile, Mr. Navalny has earned a reputation for personal courage after facing repeated physical assaults. He suffered a serious eye injury in April when he had a burning green liquid thrown into his face by a pro-Kremlin activist. No one has been charged in connection with the assault.

Meanwhile, Mr. Navalny’s wry humor and astute use of social media have gained him a massive following among younger Russians.

“I’ve lived my whole life under Putin, and I’m fed up of the lies they tell us,” Yevgeny Lapin, an 18-year-old volunteer at Mr. Navalny’s election campaign headquarters in Vologda, a city in northern Russia, told The Washington Times ahead of Monday’s protests. “Navalny offers a genuine alternative to Putin’s never-ending rule.”

The Kremlin has attempted to crack down on Mr. Navalny’s rising popularity among young people. University students have been threatened with expulsion for attending opposition protests, while schools and colleges have forced students to watch films comparing Mr. Navalny to Hitler. Mr. Navalny, who has a law degree and studied finance as a young man, was previously linked strongly to Russia’s nationalist movement but has toned down his anti-migrant rhetoric in recent years.

“The participation of so many young people in the protests is a very important sign of the radicalization of the situation and the political process in Russia,” said Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “We are seeing a global shift in Russian mass consciousness from loyalty to the authorities to disloyalty. The youth are not afraid.”

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