Putin’s Biggest Critic Breaks House Arrest, Gets Re-Arrested

Dec 30, 2014 at 3:19 PM ET

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny just upped the stakes in his long battle against Vladimir Putin’s rule. Within hours of being handed a 3.5-year suspended sentence by a Moscow court, and ordered to remain under house arrest, Navalny left his apartment and rode the metro to an unsanctioned opposition rally near Red Square. “Yes, there’s this house arrest. But today I’d really like to be with you,” Navalny wrote in a Twitter post. “So I’m also on my way.”

Navalny exited the metro and walked with a smile down Tverskaya Street, surrounded by hundreds of supporters and journalists. Predictably, he was nabbed almost immediately, escorted to a police truck by burly riot cops. Police drove him back to his apartment, and five officers were posted there to stop him from heading back to central Moscow, where several thousand people had braved arrest and freezing temperatures to protest the Kremlin’s continuing clampdown on dissent. At least 250 people were detained in the next few hours, as police snatch squads and pro-Putin youth put the frighteners on protesters.

The authorities may have solved the problem of keeping Navalny at home for tonight, but his arrest—as well as the opposition leader’s violation of both his suspended sentence and the terms of his house arrest—puts Putin in a spot. Authorities have now twice balked at jailing Navalny, a popular anti-corruption crusader who took an unexpected 27 percent at Moscow’s 2013 mayoral polls despite being banned from national TV. In the summer of 2013, Navalny was jailed for five years on spurious fraud charges, but released after a huge protest rally near the Kremlin. In a rare climbdown, his sentence was instead suspended.

The authorities were also apparently frightened off jailing Navalny this morning, after some 33,000 people indicted on Facebook that they would protest near the Kremlin if he were put behind bars. He wasn’t, but the authorities jailed Navalny’s co-defendant, his younger brother, Oleg, for 3.5 years, in a move opposition figures called “hostage-taking.”

“Authorities like these have no right to exist. They must be destroyed. I call on everyone to take to the streets today and stay there until they are removed from power,” Navalny said on the steps of the courthouse.

A huge security operation had much of central Moscow locked down from around 6 p.m. Moscow time, as police trucks flooded into Red Square. Police took no chances, ordering even small groups of people to “disperse.”

“Disperse?” one woman standing some way from the main protest asked in astonishment, after being approached by a riot cop with a megaphone. “I’m just here to meet some friends. Is this North Korea, or what?”

With the area locked down around the Kremlin and the Duma, Russia’s parliament, protesters were forced onto two strips of sidewalk on either side of the central Tverskaya Street. There, in often bizarre scenes, they mingled with shoppers and restaurant-goers, some of whom were also reportedly hauled off into police trucks. “It’s hard to say who is at the protest and who is just out for a bit of shopping,” joked one opposition supporter, as police pushed both shoppers and protesters away from Red Square.

Members of the National Liberation Movement (NOD), a pro-Putin group whose leader, lawmaker Yevgeny Fyodorov, believes U.S. agents of influence are present within the Russian government, were also out in force, occasionally trading blows with opposition supporters.

“Navalny is a U.S. agent, and that’s why I want to see him jailed. He is a national traitor,” said Nazar, a 20-something NOD member.

Online chat before tonight’s protest had been of Molotov cocktails and tent cities, but there was little to suggest Moscow is likely to see its own Maidan, the massive Kiev protest camp that led to the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year. Protesters made little effort to resist the police, with the majority simply content to film arrests on their smartphones. “This is how it all went down,” one Twitter user wrote, posting a satirical cartoon.

Across town, wary police even ordered a theater that had dared stage a play based on events at the Maidan camp to close up for the night. Law enforcement officers cited a “bomb threat.”

As arrests mounted near Red Square, the most stubborn protesters gathered around a huge, glittery New Year’s decoration. But by 9.30 p.m. local time, the area was almost clear, with only a small hardcore remaining.

“No Maidan in Moscow!” read a slogan beamed onto a wall near the Kremlin by pro-Putin supporters. On tonight’s evidence, it’s hard to argue with that.