(CNSNews.com) – Russian police on Sunday detained opposition activist Alexei Navalny as his supporters rallied across the country, calling for a boycott of elections next March which are expected to deliver President Vladimir Putin another six-year term.
Navalny had himself hoped to challenge Putin, but Russia’s central election commission (CEC) ruled a month ago that he may not contest the race, due to a suspended prison sentence for fraud. The Supreme Court last week rejected an appeal against the decision.
Navalny was detained in Moscow as he moved to join a group of protestors, about 1,000-strong, in a major thoroughfare in the capital. Video posted online show him being manhandled onto a police bus, as supporters voiced their discontent.
“Vladimir Putin has once again thrown Alexei Navalny in jail because he is afraid of his own people – and what they would do if they were free,” Sen Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a statement responding to the news.
“Every time he imprisons an opposition leader, it only shows the world just how corrupt and oppressive his regime truly is.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also reacted, tweeting, “I stand with protesters across Russia who are fighting for a free and democratic Russia. I call for the immediate release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.”
The pro-Kremlin RT television network quoted police officials as saying the anti-corruption campaigner would face charges for violating “the established procedure for organizing or holding a meeting, rally, demonstration, procession or picketing.” However Navalny’s lawyer said late Sunday he had been released without charge.
According to Navalny’s camp, protests were reported in scores of locations, from Kaliningrad – the exclave or Russian territory abutting Poland and Lithuania – to cities in Siberia nine time zones to the east, including Yakutsk where temperatures of minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit were recorded.
Protestors’ chants included “Putin is a thief,” “Russia without Putin,” “Boycott the election,” “Down with the czar” and – Navalny’s own chant seconds before he was detained – “swindlers and thieves!”
Non-governmental monitors said around 250 people were detained, in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities, including Cheboksary, about 300 miles east of Moscow, where 50 arrests were reported.
A spokesman for the Russian interior ministry told TASS that most of the rallies in 46 regions across the country had attracted several hundred people at most. Some of the rallies had been approved beforehand, although Moscow city authorities had not authorized the one in the capital.
During the day police also broke into Navalny’s offices in southeast Moscow, taking a power saw to a door to gain entrance and claiming they were responding to a bomb threat. The raid appeared designed to shut down live broadcasts covering protests that had begun earlier in time zones to the east.
There was no immediate reaction from the Trump administration to Sunday’s events.
Last month a State Department spokesman voiced concern about the CEC decision to disqualify Navalny, prompting a Russian counterpart to accuse the U.S. of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs.
The “voters’ strike” rallies protested the decision to bar Navalny from running and called on Russians to stay away from the March 18 election, which many fear will offer the autocratic incumbent no real contest.
Supporters believe the legal problems preventing Navalny from the campaign were designed to prevent a credible challenge to Putin, who is seeking a fourth term as president but has been at Russia’s helm as president or prime minister since 1999. A win in March would extend his tenure to 2024.
While Putin is widely expected to win handily, Navalny supporters hope a low turnout will further delegitimize his administration.
Putin won the 2012 election with 63.6 percent of the vote. The turnout was 65 percent, and the Putin camp is keen to see that rise to 70 percent this time. (Turnouts were 69 percent in the 2008 presidential election – when Putin handpicked Dmitry Medvedev to be the candidate – 64 in 2004 and 68 in 2000.)
Some Putin critics disagree with the tactic of boycotting the polls. Navalny himself has said if people do want to vote, they should support Grigory Yavlinsky, the presidential candidate for the liberal Yabloko party.
The CEC barred Yavlinsky from running in the last election, in 2012. He last ran in 2000, garnering less than six percent of the vote and coming in third behind Putin and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.
The field in the March election offers little opposition to Putin. Several candidates have dropped out, including Zyuganov who has run in four presidential election campaigns, and businessman Anton Bakov, leader of the country’s first legal monarchist party since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
A recent opinion poll has Putin at 67 percent, compared to six percent for Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the ultra-nationalist Liberal-Democratic Party; six percent for the Communist Party’s replacement for Zyuganov, Pavel Grudinin; and just one percent for Yavlinsky.