In a wave of rare public protests, thousands of Russians took to the streets Saturday to condemn the March election that saw Russian leader Vladimir Putin re-elected as president.
Putin, who has been Russia’s leader for 18 years, will be inaugurated Monday to begin a new six-year term. The Russian strongman’s critics have said the election he won was rigged.
Protests took place all across Russia, including St. Petersburg, not far from Russia’s western border, and Yakutsk, far to the northeastern part of the vast nation. The group OVD-Info said roughly 1,600 people were arrested in 20 cities overall.
The size of the protests was in dispute. The BBC reported that Moscow police said about 1,500 people marched in Russia’s capital. However, Reuters said its reporters at the scene estimated there were several thousand people present.
Protest organizer Alexei Navalny was among those arrested in Moscow, where protesters chanted, “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia will be free!”
Before being taken away, Navalny addressed the crowd.
“They said that this city belongs to Putin. Is that right?” Navalny asked. “Do you need a tsar?”
“No!” replied the crowd.
Prior to the marches, Navalny sought to hold protests in 90 cities.
“If you think that he is not our tsar, take to the streets of your cities,” he said in a pre-protest statement, according to Sky News. “We will force the authorities, made up of swindlers and thieves, to reckon with the millions of citizens who did not vote for Putin.”
He said Russians who did not support Putin need to be heard.
“They are different people, with different views, but as a whole, they have thoughts and ideas about Russia’s future that differ from that of Putin,” Navalny said. “Their opinions must be heard because they are the citizens of Russia too. Right now, they … we … are being ignored,” he said in a video posted to YouTube.
Protesters said their nation needed new leadership.
“I think that Putin isn’t worthy of leading this country. He has been doing it for 18 years and has done nothing good for it,” Moscow demonstrator Dmitry Nikitenko told Fox News. “He should leave for good.”
“We’ve come out here to demonstrate against the puppet elections,” said Pavel Kuznetsov, 72, who joined a Moscow protest sporting a t-shirt that showed Putin wearing a crown with a red line through it, the Australian Broadcasting Company reported.
A woman who told NBC her name was Ekaterina, but did not want her last name used, explained why Russians are protesting.
“There is a big chunk of people who don’t agree with what’s happening in the country, who didn’t go out to vote, and who don’t consider the elections legitimate,” said the 36-year-old artist.
Putin has claimed that Navalny is working with the United States to sow discord in Russia.
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