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Russia opposition leader detained as Moscow vote standoff grows

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny looks on ahead of a hearing at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg on November 15, 2018.

FREDERICK FLORINA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

By HENRY MEYER | Bloomberg News | Published: July 24, 2019

MOSCOW (Tribune News Service) — Russian police detained opposition leader Alexei Navalny as a standoff intensified over the authorities’ decision to bar prominent anti-government candidates from September elections in Moscow.

Navalny has called for another major rally Saturday in front of the mayor’s office after he addressed the biggest protest in three years in the Russian capital on July 20, attended by more than 20,000 people, according to independent monitors. Last weekend’s demonstration was authorized but the next one planned isn’t.

Navalny, 43, said officers took him away as he left his Moscow apartment building in jogging shorts early Wednesday, in a video from a police station posted on his Instagram account. His spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, later tweeted that he was being charged with violating the law against appealing for people to attend unsanctioned demonstrations and could face up to 30 days in prison if convicted. Police declined to comment.

The confrontation over the municipal polls in Moscow comes as President Vladimir Putin grapples with plunging popular support amid a prolonged economic malaise that’s driven down real incomes for the past five years. Scattered protests have broken out across the country over issues ranging from state workers’ wages to plans to expand trash dumps.

In rare about-faces, the authorities backed down earlier this year after major unrest provoked by plans to build a cathedral in a popular downtown park in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg. In June they halted the prosecution of a Moscow investigative reporter on drug charges that were later dropped.

Putin, 66, has been in power for two decades, longer than any other Russian leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. He must step down in 2024 according to a constitutional ban on more than two consecutive mandates. Though the president has vowed to observe this term limit, he’s looking for ways to keep effective control of Russia after that, according to people involved in the preparations.

The wave of unrest in Moscow is becoming “a serious risk for the Kremlin,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, an independent political analyst. It “cannot be ignored politically,” she said.

The protests were sparked by the Moscow electoral commission’s move to bar about a dozen opposition candidates who had registered to compete in the polls for the 45-seat city assembly, saying the signatures they had collected were partly invalid. The candidates reject those allegations and talks with the head of the Central Election Commission Tuesday ended without a compromise.

The anti-Putin politicians, one of whom, Lyubov Sobol, has been staging a hunger strike for 10 days, have appealed the decision in the courts. A poll released this week found 59% of Muscovites had heard of the protests and 11% said they’d participate in future ones.

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, a key Putin ally who’s run the city since 2010, is taking a hard-line approach toward the opposition because “it is extremely important for him to show he can control the situation in the capital,” said Stanovaya, the political analyst.

But Navalny has vowed not to back down. “The Kremlin continues to think we’ll forget, we’ll get scared and we won’t go on the streets,” he said on Twitter Tuesday. “We repeat our call for everyone to gather” for the Saturday rally, he said.

Navalny is regularly detained for his protest activities. He was released from prison on July 11 after serving a 10-day sentence.

Jake Rudnitsky and Stepan Kravchenko contributed to this report.

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