Supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny were preparing to rally in dozens of cities across Russia on Saturday even as authorities vowed a crackdown on protesters.
Allies of Russia’s leading opposition figure — who was jailed upon returning to Moscow after a near-fatal poisoning with a nerve agent — said they would take to the streets despite police warnings that unsanctioned public events would be “immediately suppressed”.
In the days leading up to the rallies several key Navalny aides were taken into police custody for violating protest laws and handed short jail sentences to keep them away from the protests.
In a post on Instagram, Navalny’s wife Yulia said she would join the protest in Moscow: “For myself, for him, for our children, for the values and the ideals that we share”.
Navalny’s aides urged Russians to join the demonstrations on Saturday, promising financial help with fines.
In Moscow, which usually mobilises the largest rallies, protesters plan to meet in the central Pushkin Square at 2:00 pm (1100 GMT) and march towards the Kremlin.
The city’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the calls for rallies were “unacceptable” during a pandemic and warned police would take action to ensure public order.
– Strong online presence –
Navalny, 44, rose to prominence around a decade ago and has become the central figure of Russia’s opposition movement, leading large-scale street protests against corruption and electoral fraud.
He has a strong online presence and publishes investigations into the wealth of Russia’s political elites on his YouTube channel with five million subscribers.
Many Navalny allies this week posted to social media to voice their support and call for participation in the rallies on Saturday.
Thousands of videos appeared on the TikTok app popular among teenagers, which has become an emerging medium for Russians to voice their political views.
Russia’s media watchdog warned online platforms against encouraging minors to participate in the rallies or risk hefty fines.
The watchdog said Friday that media platforms, including TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, removed content at its request.
Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte blocked groups created to coordinate the protests in different cities.
The Russian Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said Friday it launched a criminal probe into the calls for unauthorised protests.
– Arrested on arrival –
Navalny returned to Russia last week after five months in Germany, where he was recovering from a poisoning attack that he says was ordered by President Vladimir Putin.
A hastily organised court jailed the anti-graft campaigner for 30 days while he awaits trial for violating a suspended sentence he was handed in 2014.
Navalny faces a series of legal challenges that could see him receive real jail time.
After his arrest his team released an investigation into a lavish Black Sea property allegedly owned by Putin, a claim the Kremlin denied.
The two-hour video report has been viewed more than 64 million times since its release on Tuesday, becoming the Kremlin critic’s most-watched YouTube investigation.
Navalny’s arrest drew widespread Western condemnation, with the United States, the European Union, France and Canada all calling for his release.