Top Putin critic Alexei Navalny among hundreds arrested as anti-graft protests erupted across country

VIDEO: REUTERS
An opposition supporter gestures as he blocks a police van transporting detained anti-corruption campaigner and opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
An opposition supporter gestures as he blocks a police van transporting detained anti-corruption campaigner and opposition figure Alexei Navalny.PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (NYTIMES) - The Russian police arrested hundreds of people in nationwide anti-corruption protests on Sunday (March 26), including the opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, where thousands gathered for the biggest demonstration in five years against President Vladimir Putin.

The protest in the capital took the form of a synchronised walk along a major shopping street to avoid a ban on unsanctioned stationary gatherings. It was one of 99 similar rallies in cities and towns across the country – from Vladivostok in the far east to Kaliningrad in the west – according to the organiser, Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation.

All but 17 of these, the foundation said, had been declared illegal by the authorities.

In Moscow, some protesters tried to block security vans with cars, and the authorities deployed riot police and surveillance helicopters. But they mostly avoided the brutal measures used in neighboring Belarus on Saturday against protesters in the capital, Minsk, and other cities.

The police in Belarus beat and arrested hundreds of people who tried to gather for the latest in demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994.

But while less heavy-handed than in Belarus, whose Soviet-style president is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” the police crackdown in Moscow could still complicate efforts by President Donald Trump to deliver on pledges to “get along” with Putin.  

 

In a statement on Sunday that reflected widespread wariness of the Russian leader in Washington, Republican Senator Ben Sasse said: “Putin’s thugocracy is on full display.” 

Shortly after Sasse’s statement, Mark Toner, the acting spokesman for the State Department, said the United States “strongly condemns the detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters throughout Russia on Sunday” and called for their immediate release.

The protests in Russia on Sunday were the largest coordinated display of public dissatisfaction since anti-Kremlin demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, after an election that was tainted by fraud.

In a Twitter post, Navalny urged his followers to continue with the demonstration after he was grabbed by police officers as he tried to join the crowds along Tverskaya Street in the center of Moscow.

By dusk on Sunday, the protests in Moscow had wound down. Russian news media reported at least one police officer was taken to a hospital in Moscow with head injuries.