MOSCOW—Russian police armed with batons and stun guns detained thousands of protesters who took to streets across the country to support opposition politician Alexei Navalny, as the Kremlin sought to clamp down on a burgeoning protest movement.
In Moscow, protesters gathered Sunday in front of the prison where Mr. Navalny is being held before police chased them through snowy back alleys. In Russia’s far eastern city of Vladivostok, demonstrators held their rally on the ice covering the Amur Bay to evade police after they barricaded a central square. In the Volga region city of Kazan, police forced detained protesters to lie, some facedown, in the snow.
The demonstration of force by authorities aims to undercut the staying power of a movement that was sparked by Mr. Navalny’s detention on Jan. 17. He was jailed after arriving home from Germany where he had been recovering from a poison attack, triggering rallies across the country last weekend.
Across the country, police detained some 5,000 protesters on Sunday, said OVD-Info, a group that monitors police arrests. In Moscow, riot police briefly detained Yulia Navalnaya, Mr. Navalny’s wife, and accused her of participating in an illegal demonstration.
The protests carry extra importance for the Kremlin ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, as they have already showed signs of swelling beyond a narrow movement in support of Mr. Navalny and have attracted broader swaths of the population voicing anger over falling living standards and shrinking political freedoms.
Daniil Prokopenko, 29 years old, who attended last weekend the first anti-Kremlin protest in recent history in the small southern town of Anapa, said he has been ambivalent about Mr. Navalny but that the whole system created under President Vladimir Putin favors a small, well-heeled elite and stifles change through corruption, a skewed court system and rigged elections.
“We’ve come to the point where the risk is bigger to stay home than it is to go out into the streets,” said Mr. Prokopenko, who works as a courier, on his way to the protest Sunday. He said he gave up his dream of becoming a judge after he saw he needed political connections to get ahead after university.
Mr. Prokopenko said he was detained in Sunday’s protest in Anapa, where police ridiculed the demonstrators and called them “trash and traitors.”
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The scenes of police wrestling protesters into dirty snow stood in contrast to last weekend’s protests, when demonstrators brawled with officers and pelted them with snowballs. Adding to Sunday’s chaos, one man in Moscow set himself on fire as police chased demonstrators through the streets. Neither his identity nor his motive could be determined.
In Vladivostok, organizers said the number of protesters was lower than the previous week in part because riot police had held public training exercises the day before on the city’s main square, detaining dummies in a show of strength.
Marina Zheleznyakova, who works with opposition party Yabloko in Vladivostok, was also briefly detained. She was protesting against what she called a political system that is rigged against those outside the ruling United Russia party. She said other protesters, however, came out because of regional problems like pollution, deforestation and a stagnating economy.
“The Far East has become a colony for Moscow,” she said. “Problems have been building up, and nothing is done about them, so young people are leaving.”
Since the protests last weekend, Russian authorities have increased pressure on protest leaders. Law-enforcement officials raided Mr. Navalny’s home on the outskirts of Moscow and detained his brother who was there. Other top allies of Mr. Navalny, both in Moscow and in other cities, have been detained as well.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized the heavy-handed tactics over Twitter : “We renew our call for Russia to release those detained for exercising their human rights, including” Alexei Navalny.
As in the past, the Kremlin hopes it can rely on law enforcement and the judiciary to undercut the protesters’ momentum by jailing, even if temporarily, their leaders and scaring away potential participants.
“There seems to have been a strategic decision to ratchet up the heavy-handedness of the response, to deter the timid and remind everyone that the Kremlin could still be much more viciously muscular,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s law enforcement.
“The state needs just enough violence just to remind people of the tools of repression it has,” he added.
Mr. Putin can also rely on swaths of the population that either work for the government and numerous state-owned companies or Kremlin-loyal enterprises.
“A huge number of people are employed by the government and, in general, they approve of Putin and are loyal to him,” said Lev Gudkov, head of independent pollster Levada Center.
For years, Mr. Putin rode a wave of popularity following Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, but chronic economic problems and decreasing room for political freedoms have eroded his approval ratings, which currently hover around an all-time low, at 60%, according to Mr. Gudkov.
But Mr. Navalny, who has gained a following of millions online by releasing exposes that he says detail the corruption and excesses of the Kremlin elite, is trying to chip away at that support, which analysts say relies on general political apathy and a steady stream of state television.
Mr. Navalny has worked for years to turn that following into a nationwide opposition movement. Now he is working to use that movement as the engine for the protests in the country where people have lived for 20 years under Mr. Putin’s system, which has seen friends and acquaintances of the Russian leader grow rich from state contracts and natural oil-and-gas reserves.
Shortly after he was detained in January, Mr. Navalny’s team released a video detailing a palace allegedly built for Mr. Putin. The video has struck a chord among Russians and has since gathered more than 100 million views on YouTube.
Authorities deny the palace belongs to Mr. Putin. On Saturday, Arkady Rotenberg, one of Mr. Putin’s longtime friends, claimed he owned it.
The protests follow a number of constitutional and legal changes made last year that laid the groundwork for Mr. Putin to remain in the presidency until 2036 or hold a different, more ceremonial post if he chooses to step down. The plans, formulated largely by the government, have angered many who felt they didn’t have a voice in the country’s future.
A majority of Russians were shown to have supported a constitutional amendment allowing Mr. Putin to extend his time in office in a referendum last year, but rights groups have criticized the vote, saying some were forced to vote and that the campaign around the vote was one-sided.
“His ratings are falling, there is a question of legitimacy here when he wants to sit on his throne forever,” said Alexandra Kampinski, a 35-year-old photographer.
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