Defying fines and raids, Russians march against Putin

Agence France-Presse
Hundreds had gathered on Moscow's scenic Pushkin Square under a heavy rain for a march to the site of a rally that organizers hope will draw 50,000 and become the biggest since Putin's historic March election to a third term.

MOSCOW, Russia (AFP) – Russian protesters galvanized by raids on the homes of their leaders joined a march against President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, June 12, despite the threat of fines the size of their annual pay.

Hundreds had gathered on Moscow’s scenic Pushkin Square under a heavy rain for a march to the site of a rally that organizers hope will draw 50,000 and become the biggest since Putin’s historic March election to a third term.

The hashtag “Everyone to Pushka (Puskin Square) at 12” remained one of the top trends on Russia’s Twitter in the morning while protest leaders posted photos of their allies appearing for mandatory questioning as the event began.

“People will come out to the protest anyway. I don’t understand why the authorities are trying to fight the protests with methods of force,” opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov told Moscow Echo radio.

“I think that everything will be peaceful this time.”

The so-called March of Millions follows bloody battles that broke out between riot police and the mostly young crowd during a Moscow event held on the eve of Putin’s May 7 swearing in.

Scenes of police clubs swinging against the backdrop of the Kremlin drew a sharp rebuke from Western governments and dealt a bruising political blow to Putin on the very first day of his return from a four-year stint as premier.

But the Kremlin decided to respond with the kind of show of force that characterized much of Putin’s 2000-2008 presidential mandate and already appears to be a hallmark of the ex-KGB spy’s new mandate.

It used its slim parliamentary majority to ram through legislation raising penalties for protesters to 300,000 rubles ($9,000) — more than for any other administrative offense and about the size of Russians’ average annual pay.

And even Putin’s own human rights adviser was forced to sound the alarm on Monday when police armed with assault rifles conducted simultaneous morning raids on the homes of the protests’ most prominent leaders.

“I think that from the standpoint of social harmony, modernization and political reforms, this is the very worst that could have happened,” Putin’s human rights council chief Mikhail Fedotov observed.

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that Washington “is deeply concerned by the apparent harassment of Russian political opposition figures on the eve of the planned demonstrations.”

Officers beat down the doors of the increasingly popular anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny as well as media celebrity Ksenia Sobchak — a more recent recruit to the ranks of Putin’s critics.

Others targeted on Monday included Sergei Udaltsov — an outspoken ultra-leftist who stages periodic hunger strikes to protest his repeated arrests — and the far more moderate democracy campaigner Ilya Yashin.

Navalny tweeted a photograph of Yashin and Sobchak waiting to be questioned at the Investigative Committee with big smiles on their faces just as the rally was about to begin.

“Investigators intend to find out their role in organizing (the May 6) mass demonstration,” said Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin.

Udaltsov for his part tweeted that he intended to skip the questioning session and appear at the rally instead because he was its main organizer and responsible for overall security.

Tuesday’s march is being held on the patriotic Russia Day holiday marking the country’s 1990 declaration of independence from Soviet rule.

Moscow police said they were sending 12,000 riot officers and interior ministry troops onto the streets of the capital to keep order. – Maria Antonova, Agence France-Presse