MOSCOW — Thousands of demonstrators have gathered in central Moscow to protest Russian President Vladimir Putin. At least 30 people, including prominent opposition leaders, have been arrested.
As a police helicopter flew above, protesters rallied Saturday in front of Russia’s headquarters for the Federal Security Service, formerly known as the KGB. The demonstration was not sanctioned by Moscow authorities and those who participated or organized the rally faced large fines and arrest. Officials say the fines are meant to protect the security of the average Russian.
Opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov, who was arrested during the event, says it is absurd that people can not express their opinions in Russia.
He says we wanted to hold a peaceful freedom march today within the framework of the law. But he goes on to say that the authorities banned the march for no reason whatsoever. He says the government is afraid of its citizens.
Russians began protesting in December 2011 in the largest demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The rallies began after ruling party United Russia won the country’s parliamentary elections.
Demonstrators claim the party won by ballot stuffing and vote rigging, charges it denies.
Since then, demonstrators have continued to rally against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprecedented third term. Protesters say he runs the country through a tightly controlled political system and corruption. The Kremlin denies the accusations.
Since Putin has been in office, Russia has seen a major crackdown on dissent. Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, a major organizer of the anti-Kremlin protests who was also arrested Saturday, had been previously charged with fraud for allegedly stealing millions of dollars in timber and now faces another investigation for fraud. He says the charges against him are politically motivated. Moscow denies the claim. Navalny faces up to 10 years in prison.
Additionally, the fines for participating in and organizing unsanctioned demonstrations against the Kremlin have increased more than 150-fold, that is more than the average annual salary of a Russian.
Tamara, a Muscovite in her 20s who did not want to use her last name, said she almost did not come to the rally because she was afraid of the fines.
She says I think a lot of people did not show up because they are afraid of the fines. I am afraid too it would take me months of work to pay the fine off.
In addition to Udaltsov and Navalny, other prominent opposition leaders were detained Saturday including Ilya Yashin and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak.
Despite this, opposition leaders say they will continue to protest.