Riot police and national guard troops shut down central metro stations in unprecedented measures
Moscow police have paralysed the centre of the Russian capital as protests in support of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny continued for a second consecutive weekend.
More than 1,000 people were detained at rallies across the country as supporters of the Kremlin critic took to the streets to protest against his jailing, despite biting cold and the threat of arrest.
Taking unprecedented security measures, riot police and national guards troops shut down central metro stations in Moscow and blocked off downtown avenues to prevent a repeat of last week’s record protests.
Forced out of the centre, a crowd of thousands chanting “Putin is a thief” marched toward Moscow’s Komsomolskaya Square, a major rail artery outside of the security cordons, as police in body armour made hundreds of arrests.
Behind them sped dozens of armoured police vans used for mass arrests. “Moscow looks like a fortress today,” said Maria Lazareva, a protester who found herself trapped between two lines of riot police just off of Komsomolskaya Square. “They can stop us when there are not enough of us but as more come it’s going to be impossible to keep us penned in.”
Police in St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, took similar security precautions, shutting down Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main avenue, to prevent protesters from gathering there.
Rallies were planned in Moscow on Sunday as part of a campaign to win the release of president Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent. Navalny was arrested on 17 January after returning from Germany where he had been recovering from a nerve agent poisoning in Russia last summer.
Police have so far detained an estimated 519 people, the OVD-Info protest monitor said. Police have said the protests have not been authorised and will be broken up as they were last weekend. OVD-Info said that more than 4,000 people were detained at the rallies last week.
In the far-eastern city of Vladivostok, where a rally began at 0200 GMT, police prevented protesters from accessing the centre, forcing them to relocate to the waterfront and the frozen waters of the Amur Bay.
Video footage showed protesters chanting “Putin is a thief” as they linked hands and marched on the ice in temperatures of around -13 degrees Celsius (8.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
In Tomsk, the Siberian city that Navalny visited before suddenly collapsing on a domestic flight last August, demonstrators gathered in front of a concert hall and chanted “Let him go!” and held up Russian flags.
OVD-Info said police had detained 261 people, including 76 in Vladivostok, since the rallies began. Navalny’s supporters in Moscow plan to gather at 0900GMT on Sunday near the Kremlin administration and the headquarters of the FSB, the KGB’s successor, where protesters in 1991 famously pulled down a statue of the secret police’s founder during the Soviet breakup.
Authorities have closed seven metro stations in the Russian capital and have said they will restrict pedestrian movement in the area due to the protest plans. There was a heavy police presence in central Moscow early on Sunday.
Navalny, 44, accuses Putin of ordering his murder, which the Kremlin denies. He is accused of parole violations which he says are trumped up. A court is due to meet next week to consider handing him a jail term of up to three and a half years.
The protests following Navalny’s return to Moscow put Putin in a quandary over how to respond. Polls show pent-up frustrations among Russians over years of falling wages and fallout from the pandemic.
The west has told Moscow to let Navalny go and his allies have appealed to US president Joe Biden to sanction 35 people who they say are Putin’s close allies.
To galvanise support at home in an online video viewed over 100 million times, Navalny has accused Putin of being the ultimate owner of a sumptuous Black Sea palace, something the Kremlin leader has denied.
On the eve of the protests, Arkady Rotenberg, a businessman and Putin’s former judo sparring partner, said he owned the property.
Many of Navalny’s prominent allies were targeted in a crackdown this week. Several, including his brother Oleg, are under house arrest.