The Kremlin on Tuesday dismissed criticism of the tough police response to demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg that led to hundreds of arrests Monday, and shrugged off the notion that the protest movement spearheaded by anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny posed any political threat.
Navalny, who has announced his candidacy for Russia’s 2018 presidential election, was jailed for 30 days Monday after calling on his followers to rally in a central Moscow street instead of an approved protest venue outside the center. Police detained more than 800 demonstrators after they disrupted a massive street fair staged to celebrate the Russia Day holiday, according to the nongovernment police watchdog OVD-Info. Hundreds more were detained at a rally in St. Petersburg also held without official permission.
Thousands protested in more than 180 cities across Russia, according to Navalny’s campaign headquarters, making it the most widespread protest in the country since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012.
But Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, brushed off the suggestion that the outbreak of public dissatisfaction posed a danger to the Kremlin.
“Actually, no, whenever such events are held according to agreed-upon rules, as prescribed by law, they do not pose a danger to anyone,” Peskov said in remarks to reporters carried by the Interfax news agency. “Some are attended by more people and some are by less, but this is a normal process of people expressing their opinions as citizens.”
Peskov’s comments, in keeping with Kremlin practice, did not mention Navalny by name, but condemned the “group of provocateurs” who interrupted the celebration of the national holiday.
The Kremlin spokesman also dismissed a sharply worded statement read by White House press secretary Sean Spicer Monday night, declaring that “detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers and journalists is an affront to core democratic values.”
Peskov countered that permitted rallies went off peacefully in dozens of Russian cities Monday.
“Those who staged provocations and broke the law encountered measures implemented by the authorities in strict compliance with our legislation,” Peskov said.
Pollsters say Putin, who has enjoyed an approval rating above 80 percent for more than three years, is not likely to have trouble winning if, as expected, he runs for a new six-year term in March. Even though he presides unchecked over a government and legislature led by his hand-picked loyalists, most Russians do not blame the Kremlin leader for their problems.
But many do count on him to solve their problems. Two days before Putin’s annual televised “direct line” with citizens, 1.3 million Russians had submitted questions for their president, the official Tass news agency reported Tuesday.
The telethon’s official website displayed some of the appeals, which beseeched Putin to address the poor state of roads, housing, construction projects, the mortgage market, education, and the accountability of officials. One young man asked why so many young Russians want to leave the country. Several asked Putin to explain why the rest of the world fears Russia. One petitioner just wanted to express hope for peace in Syria.
Navalny, meanwhile, promises Russians a rule-of-law state governed by honest people, contrasting that with his allegations of corruption in Putin’s government. That message has yielded little support in polls, which suggest that less than 10 percent of voters would choose Navalny.
And there’s no guarantee Navalny will be allowed to run: He can be disqualified, thanks to a conviction on a fraud case he says is politically motivated.
Late Monday, Navalny posted a video from the courtroom where he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for calling for an illegal rally. He thanked his supporters, and told them “I’m proud to be part of the movement.”
Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin media blasted Navalny’s decision to move his rally to central Tverskaya Street as a cynical and desperate attempt to distract attention from holiday events in the city, including a huge concert in Red Square.
“Why did the opposition do this? Only to provide a pictures for Western television companies so that they could say ‘in Moscow President Putin has opponents!’ ” read a commentary in the official government newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta. “This is why the opposition, which represents one thousandth of the population of Muscovites, tried to turn all of Tverskaya Street into a film studio, and pass off the people celebrating Russia Day as their supporters.”
“As a whole, they did not succeed in spoiling the mood of Muscovites and guests of the capital.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · David Filipov