Russian opposition plans protest demanding fair elections despite arrests

Police officers detain a man prior to an unauthorised rally demanding independent and opposition candidates be allowed to run for office in local election in September, Moscow. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Moscow, Russia Jul 27, 2019, 03.32 PM (IST)

Thousands of Russians say they will take to the streets of Moscow on Saturday to demand fair local elections, despite a police crackdown on the opposition that has seen top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny jailed.

The planned rally is the latest in a series of protests over authorities' refusal to allow dozens of opposition candidates to stand for election to Moscow's city council in September.

Local polls are a rare opportunity for dissenting voices to participate in political life as anti-Kremlin parties have been squeezed out of parliament over President Vladimir Putin's 20 years in power.

Investigators raided the homes and headquarters of several disqualified candidates in the run-up to the protest, while Navalny was jailed for 30 days for calling for the demonstration. 

Security was tight in central Moscow on Saturday and six people were arrested in front of city hall hours before the protest started, according to OVD-Info, which monitors arrests during demonstrations.

Politician and would-be candidate Dmitry Gudkov, whose home was raided on Wednesday, said the future of the country was at stake.

"If we lose now, elections will cease to exist as a political instrument," he said. 

"What we're talking about is whether it's legal to participate in politics today in Russia, we're talking about the country we're going to live in."

Navalny ally Ivan Zhdanov said on Twitter he had been arrested shortly ahead of the demonstration on Saturday. 

Barred candidate Ilya Yashin said in the early hours of Saturday morning he had also been arrested following a raid on his home.

'Security threat'

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobaynin called the unauthorised protest a "security threat", adding that "order will be ensured according to the relevant laws". 

Officials told Russia's TASS news agency they would be looking for people who had avoided military service at the rally. 

Last weekend 22,000 people turned up for a protest in Moscow, the largest such demonstration in years, after election authorities refused to register dozens of candidates.

A handful of people were detained at that protest, though hundreds were arrested last month at a demonstration in Moscow against police abuses.

While pro-Kremlin candidates enjoy the support of the state, independent candidates say they have been made to jump through countless hoops in order to get on the ballot.

Rejected candidate Lyubov Sobol this week launched a hunger strike in protest. 

On Thursday, the 31-year-old demanded officials review her documents and came to the offices of the Moscow election commission to continue her strike.

But security agents took her out of the building on the sofa she was sitting on.

After activists and ordinary Muscovites staged pickets, including outside the local election commission building, investigators said they were launching a criminal probe into obstructing the work of election officials. 

If found guilty, organisers risk up to five years in prison.

'Absurdities become norm'

Ahead of Saturday's rally, Russian business daily Vedomosti described the actions of local authorities as Orwellian.

"Over the past days, absurdities have become the norm," the newspaper said.

Nearly 11,000 people indicated interest in the rally on Facebook, which comes amid declining living standards and falling approval ratings for Putin.

Police asked media to notify the authorities if they planned to cover the protest and urged Russians to skip the rally altogether.

Viktoria Popova, a 30-year-old illustrator, said she could not miss it. 

"It is impossible not to come, it's impossible to feel powerless, unable to change anything," she told AFP.

"Who would have thought it would become important to take part in such a bizarre and boring affair as the Moscow parliament election?"

Story highlights

The planned rally is the latest in a series of protests over authorities' refusal to allow dozens of opposition candidates to stand for election to Moscow's city council in September.