Nataliya Vasilyeva ?and Vladimir Isachenkov
MOSCOW: The wave of nationwide demonstrations that shook Russia’s long dormant political scene over the weekend showed a new face of protest: mostly teenage demonstrators driven by accusations of high-level official corruption, glaring amid the nation’s painful two-year recession.
A year before facing re-election, President Vladimir Putin has a dilemma: to further tighten the screws or to devise more artful means for keeping a lid on dissent. On Monday, a Moscow court handed a 15-day jail term to the protest organizer, Alexei Navalny, whose charisma and social media savvy helped rally the young.
Navalny was arrested as he walked to a protest in Moscow on Sunday and spent the night in jail before showing up in court. Police have arrested more than 1,000 people for taking part in the unauthorized protest in the capital, and many of them face jail sentences or fines. Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation has promised to offer legal assistance to all those who were arrested.
“Even the slightest illusion of fair justice is absent here,” Navalny told reporters Monday from the defendant’s bench, complaining about the judge striking down one motion after another. “Yesterday’s events have shown that quite a large number of voters in Russia support the program of a candidate who stands for fighting corruption. These people demand political representation — and I strive to be their political representative.”
Journalists and well-wishers packed the courtroom in central Moscow, where Navalny, in a selfie posted on Twitter, declared: “A time will come when we’ll put them [the authorities] on trial too — and that time it will be fair.”
The 40-year-old Navalny, Russia’s most popular opposition leader, has had three convictions on fraud and embezzlement charges that he dismisses as politically motivated. Even though the convictions technically disqualify him, he has announced a presidential bid for 2018.
With his expose of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged collection of mansions, villas and vineyards — which garnered over 13 million views on YouTube — Navalny inspired tens of thousands to take to the streets across Russia.
On Monday, Putin met with senior officers of the National Guard, which took part in arresting participants in the demonstrations, but he didn’t mention the protest.
“The question now is what kind of balance between propaganda and repression the government will choose,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.