MOSCOW (Reuters) - Thousands of Russian opposition protesters were expected to try and rally again in Moscow on Saturday to demand free elections despite a sweeping police crackdown and ban on the event.
At a similar protest a week earlier, police detained more than 1,000 people, sometimes violently, in one of the biggest security operations of recent years that brought widespread international condemnation.
A Moscow court said on Friday that 88 people had been taken into custody for taking part in last weekend’s protest, another 332 fined, and that more than 1,000 charge sheets had been drawn up. Many of the anti-Kremlin opposition’s leading figures, including Alexei Navalny, are now behind bars.
Authorities carried out a new round of detentions and home searches after the last protest and opened criminal proceedings for what they term mass civil unrest, an offence which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in jail.
The focus of protesters’ anger is a prohibition on a slew of opposition-minded candidates, some of whom are allies of Navalny, from taking part in a September election for Moscow’s city legislature.
That vote, though local, is seen as a dry run for a national parliamentary election in 2021.
Authorities say the opposition candidates failed to collect enough genuine signatures to register.
The excluded candidates say that is a lie and insist on taking part in a contest they believe they could win.
The ruling United Russia party’s rating is at its lowest since 2011 and President Vladimir Putin’s own rating has fallen due to discontent over falling living standards.
Lyubov Sobol, one of the excluded candidates, told Reuters demonstrations would continue until the authorities backed down.
“It won’t be solved until they understand that people are demanding political representation that takes account of their own opinion and will, that these people are not going away,” said Sobol, who is on a hunger strike.
At least of eight of Sobol’s allies, including Navalny, are in jail for breaking tough protest laws. United Russia dominates the national parliament, and Navalny plus his allies are starved of media air-time.
Putin and the Kremlin have not commented on the standoff, but Moscow prosecutors on Friday warned would-be protesters that the demonstration had not been approved and that its organizers could be brought to account.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin ally, has told the opposition he will not allow their protest movement to plunge the Russian capital into anarchy.
The planned protest underlines the determination of Kremlin critics - especially younger people - to keep pressing to open Russia’s tightly-choreographed political system to competition.
At well over 60 percent, Putin’s approval rating is still high compared to many other world leaders, but lower than it used to be due to discontent over years of falling incomes.
Last year, the 66-year-old former KGB intelligence officer won a landslide re-election and a new six-year term until 2024.
Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne