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‘This is Our Country’: Thousands of Russians Protest Against Presidential Election

Thousands of Russians gathered on Sunday to participate in the fourth protest organized by opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

MOSCOW, Russia — “Putin is a thief! Putin is a thief!” people repeated after young men who climbed a light pole in the middle of Pushkinskaya Square in central Moscow. The light poles have become makeshift tribunes for supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, while the statue of Alexander Pushkin, one of the greatest Russian poets, has become a symbol of the protest that took place on Sunday.

“Navalny! Navalny!” the light pole occupants changed their chant, as the crowd seemed to like the new one more. During the fourth Navalny rally, people took to the streets to show their dissatisfaction with the presidential election which will take place on March 18.

“Dear citizens! We are kindly asking you to leave the square,” a policeman repeated again and again in his loudspeaker making the young men on top of the light pole angrier.

“This is our country!” they shouted as more people joined their outcry. “Russia is going to be free!”

Mr. Navalny called for protests in late December after he was barred from participating in the presidential election. He asked his allies to boycott the vote since there was “no one to choose” from. If less than 50 percent of the citizens vote, as Mr. Navalny hopes, the election will be proclaimed illegal.

Olga, a 25-year-old rally participant, has not decided yet whether to vote or not.

“I came to show that I want the regime to change, the same as all these people. I don’t feel like it is an election when everybody knows who will win. I’m not sure if this rally will help, but I’m sure I should express my opinion. We’ve got to show there are people in opposition,” she told The Globe Post.

Her friend, who also participated in the rally, thought she should vote to support people competing with President Vladimir Putin.

“Otherwise the situation may look like this: twenty percent of voters will come, and Putin will get one hundred percent of their [votes],” she told The Globe Post.

Olga’s friend laughed off the possibility of the international community not accepting results of an election with poor attendance.

“Do you think any Russian official cares about it?” she asked.

Students in Opposition

Alexey Navalny has managed to do one thing that other Russian politicians were not able to pull off: he called for protests, and people came. He called for them multiple times, and people always showed up across dozens of Russian cities and towns, not only in big city centers, as it used to be before 2017.

One of the most surprising developments was that a lot of school students came to support Mr. Navalny. Russians who are under the voting age of 18 are still coming to Mr. Navalny’s rallies although they are being told in schools not to do it.

On a frosty Sunday, downtown Moscow became a place where generations met. While two teens were having a chat with an old lady, a man in his forties was discussing politics with another man in his sixties. All of them were surrounded by an enormous number of armed police officers.

“I don’t like Putin’s regime because it is destroying Russian culture and doesn’t give us anything in return,” 14-year-old Ivan told The Globe Post. “I don’t like the education system, it’s very superficial. I’m not a Navalny sympathizer, but I can’t stand the situation in the country, and that’s why I’m here.”

He came to the rally with his friend Mark who is 14 too. Adults did not accompany them. Ivan’s parents were fine with him attending the protest, but said they would not go to the police station, shall he get arrested. They are not going to vote either. Mark’s parents are Mr. Navalny’s supporters. They participated in protests before and are going to boycott the election.

Both teens were happy not so many arrests took place this time. If the head of their school learns about their participation, they will be in trouble. At the same time, they said they were proud of their friends who got arrested or interviewed during 2017 rallies.

It has become easier for school students to join protests. According to Russian laws, a child cannot be expelled from school, but university students can be.

After previous Navalny rallies, several universities forced students who attended them to drop out. Because of this, one of three young people approached by The Globe Post declined to answer questions. His two friends – 16 and 17 years old – preferred not to say their names.

“In my opinion, Navalny is the best candidate. He has a good program, and he says worthwhile things. He is an experienced politician,” one of them said. “Putin has been the president for my entire life. I’m just curious to see how it will be without him.”

The young man said his parents did not know he was attending the protest. He added that he was praying not to be arrested since his school principal is a member of the ruling United Russia party, which supports Mr. Putin.

One Hundred Cities In

In Russia, anyone who wants to organize a public meeting must ask for official permission. Without it, the gathering will be considered illegal and banned. Usually, the government uses every reason to not allow opposition events.

On Sunday, Mr. Navalny’s rallies took place in nearly one hundred cities across Russia, but they were permitted in only half of them. More than two hundred and fifty people were arrested all over the country, including Mr. Navalny himself. He was arrested several minutes after he came to the rally on Moscow’s main Tverskaya Street.

“It doesn’t matter. Come to Tverskaya. You are not coming for me but for yourself and your future,” he tweeted. “Anybody can replace me.”

The biggest and prohibited protests unfolded in Moscow and Saint Petersburg – several thousand people came. In some towns, just a few participants gathered, like in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, a city in the Far East of Russia. In Ekaterinburg, however, Mayor Yevgeny Roizman supported the rally and delivered a speech.

In Siberia, people took to the streets despite icy weather. In Yakutsk, people rallied for thirty minutes in -40 degrees Celsius (-40 degrees Fahrenheit).

In Moscow, policemen tried to stop Mr. Navalny’s campaign from streaming the protest, just as they did before. They broke into two Navalny campaign offices destroying doors, but could not locate the team.

“There’s something wrong with our country,” Alexander, 78, told The Globe Post. “This is not my first protest. We are normal people with normal demands, but the government refuses to accept it. Actually, I have only one demand: I want a fair election.”

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