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Vladimir Putin

Opponents of Vladimir Putin protest in Russia on his 65th birthday

Police allowed demonstrators in Moscow to rally near the Kremlin in an apparent desire to avoid marring Putin’s birthday with a crackdown

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 October, 2017, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 October, 2017, 1:17pm

In a challenge to President Vladimir Putin on his 65th birthday, protesters rallied across Russia, heeding opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s call to pressure authorities into letting him enter the presidential race.

Police allowed demonstrators in Moscow to rally near the Kremlin in an apparent desire to avoid marring Putin’s birthday with a crackdown.

A bigger rally in St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, was disbanded by police after protesters blocked traffic and attempted to break through police cordons.

More than 270 people were detained nationwide, more than 60 of them in Saint Petersburg, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors politically motivated arrests.

The rallies came as Navalny himself is serving a 20-day jail term for calling for an earlier unsanctioned protest.

In Moscow, several hundred protesters, most of them students, gathered on downtown Pushkinskaya Square, waving Russian flags and chanting “Russia will be free!” and “Let Navalny run!” Police warned them that the rally wasn’t sanctioned and urged them to disperse, but let the protest continue for hours without trying to break it up.

Mostly teenage protesters later walked down Moscow’s Tverskaya Street toward the Kremlin, shouting “Putin, go away!” and “Future without Putin!”

Police lines blocked them from approaching Red Square and they turned back. Several hours later, some made a new attempt to march on the Kremlin, shouting “Putin thief!” and briefly attempted to block traffic.

The authorities’ decision to refrain from breaking up the Moscow protest contrasted with a more forceful response to previous Moscow rallies called by Navalny, when police detained more than 1,000 demonstrators.

Navalny’s headquarters called protests in 80 cities. Most were not sanctioned by authorities, but police largely refrained from dispersing the rallies that drew from a few dozen to a few hundred people. The Siberian city of Yakutsk saw a tough police response, with a few dozen demonstrators reportedly detained.

Navalny has declared his intention to run for president in the March 2018 election, even though a criminal conviction that he calls politically motivated bars him from running. The 41-year-old anti-corruption crusader has organised waves of protests this year, raising the pressure on the Kremlin.

Putin hasn’t yet announced whether he would seek re-election, but he’s widely expected to run. With his current approval ratings topping 80 per cent, he is set to easily win another six-year term in a race against torpid veterans of past election campaigns, like Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov.

Navalny argues that the high level of support for Putin comes from the lack of real political competition and urged supporters to help him get registered.

Navalny has worked to expand his reach with videos exposing official corruption and YouTube live broadcasts. His documentary about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged ill-gotten wealth has been viewed nearly 25 million times since its release in March, helping galvanise protests.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse