MOSCOW, Russia – Since Vladimir Putin came to power, every Russian knows that October 7 marks his birthday. This year, to mark the big day, opposition leader Aleksey Navalny called on his supporters to gather in 80 cities across the country to protest against Mr. Putin’s government.
Mr. Navalny, a 41-year-old lawyer and blogger, has already organized several protests this year. He intended to lead the rally in Saint Petersburg, Mr. Putin’s hometown, but his plans remained unfulfilled because being an opposition leader in Russia comes at a cost.
Last Friday, the police detained Mr. Navalny before he was able to reach the city of Nizhny Novgorod, where he organized another rally.
Under the law introduced during President Putin’s first term, mass public meetings need to be agreed on with local authorities. Russian authorities accused Mr. Navalny of repeatedly violating the regulations for organized public meetings. On Monday, he was sentenced to 20 days in jail for calling an unsanctioned protest.
“It’s a birthday present for the old man Putin,” Mr. Navalny told reporters before being sentenced. “He’s frightened of our rallies.”
The latest arrest did not stop the opposition leader’s supporters, who gathered for rallies across the country in Mr. Navalny’s absence.
From Belgorod to Vladivostok, people met up on President Putin’s birthday to heed Mr. Navalny’s call to pressure authorities into letting him enter the presidential race.
In May, Russian Central Election Commission said Mr. Navalny would not be allowed to run because of his five-year suspended sentence for embezzlement.
It was 2 p.m. in the Russian capital of Moscow when several hundred people started gathering at central Pushkin Square.
Amid massive police presence, Masha and Maxim, both 15 years old, told The Globe Post they do not want Mr. Putin to be elected again.
“We support Navalny because we believe he can change this country. That is why we attended the protests in March and in June, as well as today,” they said. “We also know we cannot vote in the next elections. That is why we are here today because people should open their eyes and stop supporting Putin,” they added.
The crowd size has gradually grown and people started chanting “Russia will be free!”, “Russia without Putin!”, “Navalny is our president!” and “Happy Birthday Putin, Happy Birthday Putin!”
“Most of the people here today are young, educated and tired of Putin,” Alexander, a 16-year-old student, told The Globe Post. “I started caring about the political situation in Russia 2 years ago and I understood the time for change has arrived.”
Along with the symbols of Mr. Navalny’s protests – the Russian flag and a duck, a reference to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s estate that features a duck house – some people carried with them copies of the Russian Constitution.
“Putin should know the Constitution and let Navalny run for the next elections,” a young woman said.
Around 3:30 p.m., the rally moved from Pushkin Square to Tverskaya street. People were chanting “We are still here!” while walking towards the State Duma — the lower house of the Russian parliament. Police and riot forces closed access to Red Square as protesters marched down the city center.
At 6 p.m., when streets of Moscow somewhat cleared, another rally started in Saint Petersburg.
Кто ведёт колонну неизвестно. Движение перекинуто идут все прямо по улице. Мимо летнего сада. pic.twitter.com/dJVMSHa4jf
— Арсений Веснин (@ars_ves) October 7, 2017
By 9 p.m., at least 271 people have been detained in 26 cities in Russia, with 62 of them in Saint Petersburg, 57 in Yaroslavl, 21 in Krasnodar and 20 in Lipetsk.
Even though the Central Election Commission declared Mr. Navalny ineligible to run in 2018 elections, in less than 15 days he will be released and ready to challenge Mr. Putin once again.