Russia braces for second weekend of pro-Navalny protests – The Guardian

Russia

Opposition leader thanks supporters and says ‘they can’t put everyone in jail’

Fri 29 Jan 2021 09.52 EST

Russia is braced for a second weekend of unrest as the Kremlin cracks down on protests in support of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an effort to prevent them from growing into a Belarus-style uprising.

In a new letter, Navalny appeared to nod to the “stop the cockroach” demonstrations against the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, and thanked his supporters, saying: “They can’t put everyone in jail.”

Supporters were called to rally on Sunday near the headquarters of the FSB, the intelligence agency accused of poisoning Navalny last August. “Alexei is facing a serious prison sentence for challenging Putin, investigating his own poisoning and telling all of Russia about the president’s palace,” an invitation read.

At stake is whether the opposition to Vladimir Putin can maintain its momentum and threaten to paralyse parts of Moscow and other cities every weekend. This would create a sizeable headache for the Kremlin, which appears poised as soon as Tuesday to put Navalny in prison for years to come.

“Right now everything that the government wants, it gets, even if it breaks the law,” said Olga Mikhailova, Navalny’s lawyer, after a failed appeal to secure his release on Thursday.

Russian police have handled the protests more deftly than their Belarusian counterparts, and it is not clear that the popular anger against Lukashenko will be repeated against Putin, who remains more popular than his neighbour.

More than a dozen investigations have been opened across Russia into alleged rioting, hooliganism, blocking of traffic and other offences as officials review hours of footage shot at last Saturday’s rallies, which were some of Russia’s largest protests in the last decade.

On Friday a Russian news agency released footage of its tour of the £1bn Black Sea palace allegedly built for Putin that was profiled in a Navalny investigation last week. The building was shown to be largely under construction, appearing at odds with the lavish renders of the mansion’s interiors put together by Navalny’s team.

“If the palace isn’t finished and won’t be ready for another five years, then what, excuse me, is the state company Transneft paying 120m roubles each month to rent?” said Maria Pevchikh, a lead investigator for Navalny, in response to the footage.

The Kremlin had already sought to diffuse anger over the investigation by having Putin himself deny he owned the palace – a rare move for a leader who still will not acknowledge Navalny by name in public. Navalny’s video has been watched more than 100m times on YouTube.

A screengrab from Navalny’s video showing the £1bn Black Sea palace allegedly built for Putin. Photograph: AP

The Kremlin’s efforts to fracture the protest movement were laid bare in a Moscow region courtroom this week when Navalny was beamed in to a hearing to learn for the first time that many of his aides, along with his brother, had been swept up in police raids.

“But why did they arrest Oleg?” Navalny asked of his brother, who previously served three and a half years in prison and could face another two years if he is charged with violating coronavirus restrictions at last week’s protests. Navalny shook his head and added: “It’s crazy.”

Navalny, who owes his success in part to his internet presence and clever use of social media, has been isolated at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina jail and could be dispatched to a prison at a parole hearing next week. His brother and several aides are being held under house arrest, meaning they will not be able to attend Sunday’s increasingly leaderless protests.

Few of Navalny’s aides remain free. One of them, Leonid Volkov, was charged in a separate case for allegedly luring children to last week’s rallies in a video promoting the protests.

“I am in hell,” he wrote when reached for comment on Thursday. In more expansive remarks, he wrote: “Everyone knows that there was no ‘luring of minors’ [to the rallies]. Why did the investigative committee open such a deliberately absurd case? So that everyone worries and talks about it.”

Investigators said on Friday they would seek to arrest Volkov, who is abroad.

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