- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2017

Russian authorities detained hundreds of anti-corruption protesters and arrested the nation’s leading opposition figure Sunday, as the biggest demonstrations against the Kremlin since 2011 broke out in several cities around the nation.

Police detained anti-graft crusader Alexei Navalny in central Moscow, where thousands took to the streets in a rally staged roughly a year before President Vladimir Putin is expected to run for a fourth term in office.

While crowds of supporters surrounded riot police as they closed in on Mr. Navalny, videos circulated online showed a van carrying the opposition leader away from the scene at a nearby subway station to the demonstration at Moscow’s iconic Pushkin Square.

The U.S.-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that protesters chanted “shame!” and “defenders of thieves!” as Mr. Navalny was hauled away. One demonstrator mounted the base of a famous statue of Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin and raised a placard with the message “Putin 666.”

The demonstrator was swiftly detained by police, the organization said.

Roughly 500 others were also detained in Moscow, according to Russia’s state-owned media organ RT, which characterized the demonstration as an “unsanctioned rally.”

RT said some 8,000 people had taken to the streets of the Russian capital for the demonstration, while police using loudspeakers called on them to disperse.

The 2.5-acre Pushkin Square was densely crowded, as were sidewalks on the adjacent Tverskaya Street. State news agency Tass cited Moscow police as saying about 200 people were arrested.

The BBC, meanwhile, cited TV images that showed demonstrators shouting “Down with Putin!” and other chants, including “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia without Putin!” Others demand the resignation of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Reuters noted on Sunday that Mr. Navalny and his Foundation for Fighting Corruption had called for the protests to be held after publishing corruption allegations against Mr. Medvedev, claiming that the prime minister has amassed a huge fortune that far outstrips his official government salary.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Medvedev has called the allegations “propagandistic attacks” unworthy of detailed comment, and said they amounted to pre-election posturing by Mr. Navalny, Reuters reported.

Mark Toner, the acting spokesperson at the State Department, said in a Sunday evening statement that the U.S. “strongly condemns the detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters throughout Russia on Sunday.”

“Detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers and journalists is an affront to core democratic values. We were troubled to hear of the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny upon arrival at the demonstration, as well as the police raids on the anti-corruption organization he heads,” he said.

Analysts are calling Sunday’s demonstrations the biggest anti-Kremlin rallies in Russia since 2011 and 2012. It’s unclear how they will impact the nation’s politics heading toward next year’s elections.

Reuters cited opinion polls suggesting that the liberal opposition, which Mr. Navalny represents, has little chance of fielding a candidate capable of unseating Mr. Putin, who enjoys high ratings — but that Mr. Navalny and his supporters hope to channel public discontent over official corruption to attract more support.

In the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, police forcefully detained some demonstrators near the city’s railway terminal, in one case falling down a small grassy slope as they wrestled with a detainee, The Associated Press reported.

News reports and social media reported demonstrations in large cities throughout the country, including Novosibirsk, Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk. At least 25 people were reported arrested in Vladivostok and 12 in Khabarovsk.

Some demonstrators showed up with their faces painted green, a reference to a recent attack on Navalny in which an assailant threw a green antiseptic liquid onto his face.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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