(Bloomberg) — Russian authorities ratcheted up the threat of prosecution after tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the world’s largest country in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
Police detained more than 3,500 people in 125 cities, including almost 1,500 in the capital Moscow, according to monitoring group OVD-Info, though most were released within hours. The demonstrations at the weekend were the biggest since 2018 and one pollster put the number of protesters in Moscow at as many as 35,000, the largest ever unauthorized rally in the city.
While President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed criticism of the crackdown by the U.S. and the European Union, and claimed the turnout was much smaller, there was concern even in pro-Kremlin circles. Navalny’s backers have called for new protests next Saturday.
The showdown marks a serious challenge for Putin, 68, who pushed to change the constitution last year to allow him to continue as president until 2036. In power for 21 years, his support fell to a record last year as the economy buckled under the strain of the Covid-19 epidemic. He has yet to say if he’ll run for a fifth term in 2024.
The wave of protests is also a test for the opposition, which has seen previous surges in anti-government activity fade as the authorities have taken a hard line against participants.
“The current demonstrations are not an immediate threat to the Kremlin, but in the long-term this is important and more dangerous because this is serious and conscious protest,” said Leonid Volkov, an analyst at the Levada independent pollster.
“People understand what they are facing and understand the consequences. Therefore, the tactic of more brutality from the authorities won’t be successful,” he said.
For the moment, the Kremlin’s crackdown didn’t appear as sweeping as some seen in the past, although investigators could yet widen their probes.
Navalny, 44, was imprisoned just over a week ago after he returned to Moscow from Berlin, where he’d been recovering from a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he and Western governments blame on Putin’s security service. The Kremlin denies responsibility.
With the opposition leader’s spokeswoman and activists already in detention for several days, the government brandished the threat of prison terms for the organizers and participants of the rallies.
In Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladivostok, the Interior Ministry opened criminal cases for blocking roads. In Moscow, authorities charged six people with offenses ranging from damaging public property to attacking officials, punishable by up to five years in jail, the Interfax news service reported.
A senior pro-Kremlin lawmaker, Andrei Klimov, accused Western intelligence services of helping to stage the demonstrations, the state-run RIA Novosti news service reported. State television coverage of the unrest branded Navalny as an agent of the U.S. and its allies.
A political consultant to the Kremlin, Sergei Markov, sounded the alarm, describing the demonstrations as a success for the opposition and Navalny as the undisputed leader of anti-Putin forces in a Facebook post.
Protesters chanted “Putin is a thief” and demanded his resignation. Navalny has continued to challenge him from prison, drawing some 85 million views on YouTube for a video investigation into a giant Black Sea palace he says belongs to the president. The Kremlin rejects the allegations.
In a sign of official lack of resolve, a policeman in St. Petersburg visited a 54-year-old woman protester in hospital to apologize after he kicked her in the stomach.
Navalny faces a prison term of as long as 3 1/2 years at a Feb. 2 hearing for allegedly violating his probation under a suspended sentence during his treatment in Germany, while potential new charges also carry a maximum 10 years in jail. Officials close to the leadership warn that the Kremlin is determined to lock up Putin’s most prominent opponent for years.
The mass protests also risk deepening Russia’s isolation after U.S. President Joe Biden took office. The EU, which has a new tool for blacklisting foreign officials over human rights abuses, is likely to weigh asset freezes and travel bans against authorities implicated in Navalny’s detention in March.