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Russian government 'really afraid' of pro-Navalny protests

January 24, 2021

A close friend of Kremlin dissident Alexei Navalny has told DW that protesters were mobilized by his "unlawful" arrest upon return to Russia last week. Revelations about Putin's Black Sea mansion also spiked their anger.

A woman stands in front of Russian riot police
Navalny's close friend and anti-corruption expert Vladimir Ashurkov told DW that Saturday's protests had left the Kremlin "really afraid"Image: Evgenia Novozhenina/REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin's officials are shaken by the extent of Saturday's nationwide protests in support of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, one of his close friends told DW on Sunday.

"They really are afraid," said Vladimir Ashurkov, director of the non-profit Anti-Corruption Foundation, referring to the large police turnout and the arrest of more than 3,000 people.

Asked why so many people had been ready to risk arrest on Saturday, he said: first, it was Moscow's "unlawful" arrest of Navalny last weekend on return from a five-month recuperation in Germany where he received treatment for a near-fatal poisoning in Siberia last August.

The other factor, Ashurkov said, was the dissident movement's release of "the video exposing Mr. Putin and his corruption in the form of a billion-euro mansion in the south of Russia."

Russians turned out, he added, "to protest the detention of Navalny, but also against the rampant corruption in Russia."

"One of the protesters had a banner with the words: "This president is too expensive for us," Ashurkov told DW, predicting that the "autocratic regime" headed by "Putin and his cronies, it surely will end."

What has been the Kremlin's reaction?

Reacting Sunday to the protests across Russia a day earlier, Kremlin chief spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian state television that "few people" had attended.

Peskov also accused the US Embassy in Moscow of indirectly interfering in "our domestic affairs," after officials issued a safety warning to Americans based in Russia ahead of the demonstrations.

"Of course, these publications are inappropriate," said Peskov, after the Russian Foreign Ministry had said the US envoy would be summoned to "explain themselves."

What happened during Saturday's protests?

The Russian civil rights portal OVD-Info said Sunday that among its count of 3,400 arrested during rallies in 100 cities, at least 1,360 of those had been made in Moscow.

In St. Petersburg, another 523 detentions took place, said OVD. A video showing a police officer kicking a woman in St. Petersburg prompted outrage on social networks.

Navalny's team said 40,000 had attended the Moscow protest. Police estimates were far lower.

'A new sense of determination' at Russia protests

Reacting Sunday to Russia's mass arrests, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French media: "The affront to the rule of law posed by these collective and preventive arrests is intolerable."

"I find this slide toward authoritarianism very worrying," said Le Drian, adding however that ongoing dialog between France and Russia remained "necessary." 

Last Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas condemned the Kremlin's latest arrest of Navalny, saying the Russian dissident had chosen to return to Russia "because that's where he feels his personal and political home is.

"That he was detained on his arrival by Russian authorities is utterly incomprehensible," Maas told German public television. 

Toilet brush becomes meme

In many cities, demonstrators held up toilet brushes — an allusion to an alleged expensive Italian utensil spotted in a bathroom of Putin's giant Black Sea palace.

Following the revelations about Putin's pricey mansion, the daily Badische Zeitung newspaper reported Thursday that Navalny had made his two-hour film about the scandal at Germany's Black Forest Studios at Kirchzarten, in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg.

In October, the newspaper said Navalny was recuperating after his treatment at Berlin's Charite hospital clinic under a "large" police guard at Ibach, also in the Black Forest region, 50 kilometers (26 miles) further south. 

ipj/mm (dpa, AFP, Reuters, AFP)