MOSCOW — Russian police in riot gear detained hundreds of protesters Saturday opposing the exclusion of opposition politicians from the ballot for an upcoming city council election, marking another flare of anti-government defiance a week after Moscow’s largest opposition rally in years.
Police said around 3,500 people gathered near City Hall for the unauthorized protest organized by prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Earlier this week, a Russian court sentenced Navalny to 30 days in jail for calling for the demonstration. A handful of other prominent opposition politicians also were arrested before the rally took place.
A monitoring group that tracks political arrests in Russia, OVD-Info, said more than 750 people were detained during the police sweeps Saturday, the Associated Press reported. In previous mass detentions, many people were released after being held for several hours. The Moscow police had earlier said they had made 295 arrests, the Associated Press reported, but did not offer a final number.
Police also stormed a TV studio belonging to Navalny that was live-streaming the protests on YouTube, and arrested Vladimir Milono, who was in charge of the program. Navalny previously ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Moscow in 2013.
A number of opposition politicians’ names were banned from the ballot for the September city legislative vote after election officials claimed they had not gathered enough signatures to qualify. But their supporters say that the government is intentionally boxing them out from participating in the elections in order to maintain the council’s status quo. There are 45 seats on Moscow’s city council, which is currently controlled by a pro-Kremlin party.
The fight over the council is emblematic of political tests around Russia for Russian President Vladimir Putin such as municipal elections and challenges over building projects. The outcomes do not directly threaten Putin’s grip on the country, but serve as rallying points for opposition groups that have faced relentless pressure from the Kremlin.
Last Saturday, more than 22,000 people gathered for a protest in downtown Moscow in the largest such demonstration in years. This week, protesters chanted “Russia will be free,” the AP reported.
Photos from the scene show police in riot gear detaining protesters and beating them with batons.
The protests involved just a tiny fraction of the 13 million people who live in the city, and it was business as usual in much of the center on a balmy August afternoon. But the recent protests represented perhaps the biggest anti-government groundswell in the Russian capital in recent years.
The main target of the protesters’ ire was Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who is a close ally of Putin.
The protests are the latest sign that Russians are becoming increasingly vocal in voicing their frustration, even if their numbers are still far too few to pose an immediate challenge to Putin’s power. The demonstrations are driven, analysts say, by everything from economic stagnation and anger over government cutbacks and corruption to a rejection of Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
Earlier this summer, protesters took to the streets in Moscow to stand up for Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist who was framed for drug crimes by the police and then released amid public outrage. Across Russia, meanwhile, people have loudly protested local issues in recent months, from the planned construction of a cathedral in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg to a plan for a new landfill in the far north.
O’Grady reported from Washington.