MOSCOW • Supporters of Russia's jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny took to the streets on President Vladimir Putin's birthday yesterday to protest against his nearly two-decade rule.
The main rally in support of the charismatic anti-graft campaigner, who has declared his intention to run in a presidential election next March to unseat Mr Putin, was to take place in the President's hometown of Saint Petersburg later in the day. But several hundred protesters began gathering earlier in the capital Moscow.
The opposition said several activists were detained in the central Russian cities of Tver and Samara, among other places.
The Moscow and Saint Petersburg authorities have refused to let the protesters gather in the city centre, and the rallies could be violent.
"I'm here because I want to stop Putin's activities," said Ms Maria Antonenko, 18, a student from Moscow. "I want to make Russia a European country - I want to live in freedom, I don't want this to be a North Korea or an Asian regime."
Witnesses said the authorities had tightened security in central Moscow, sending police to the scene.
Ahead of the rallies, Navalny's campaign team released a series of video addresses of prominent figures calling on Russians to take to the streets.
In an unusually strong address, one of Russia's most acclaimed film directors, Mr Andrei Zvyagintsev, slammed President Putin for hindering Navalny.
He criticised the prospect of Russians voting in polls where "we are asked to choose one out of one".
"It's just revolting watching this spectacle," he said.
Competitive elections along with Navalny's release from jail and permission for him to put his name on the presidential ballot are the opposition's top demands.
Mr Putin, who turned 65 yesterday, has ruled over Russia since 1999. He said last week that he had not yet decided whether to seek another six-year term. But he is widely expected to run in the March elections and win.
Navalny, a Yale-educated lawyer with a street-smart image and a penchant for catchy slogans, has compared life under Mr Putin's regime to a forced diet of "turnip".
"If we do nothing, they will be feeding us this damn turnip for the rest of our lives. And our children too," he said in an address dictated from his prison cell earlier last week.
The activist was arrested late last month as he was planning to travel to a rally, and a court last Monday sentenced him to 20 days in jail on charges of repeatedly violating a law on organising public meetings.
Navalny, 41, brought tens of thousands of supporters - many of them students and schoolchildren - onto the streets for unauthorised protests across the country on March 26 and June 12.
The protests ended in violent clashes, and police arrested more than 1,000 people in Moscow alone at the March demonstration.
Officials say Navalny is not eligible to run for president because he is serving a suspended sentence for fraud.