Russia: arrests of opponents before protests and a speech by Putin

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Moscow | Russian police raided the movement of jailed opponent Alexei Navalny on Wednesday, ahead of protests intended to interfere with President Vladimir Putin’s annual speech.

The Russian president, who is due to speak from noon (9 am GMT), is expected on the growing tensions with the West around the fate of his detractor, hospitalized in prison and dying according to his relatives, but also of the military deployment Russian close to Ukraine and deleterious relations with the United States.

Domestically, the economic and health crisis due to COVID-19 must feature prominently in this speech, especially since legislative elections are scheduled for September.

The movement of Alexei Navalny, on hunger strike for three weeks to denounce his conditions of detention, called for demonstrations at 7 p.m. local. More than a hundred cities are concerned, from Vladivostok (9 a.m. GMT) to Kaliningrad (5 p.m. GMT), via Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and Vladimir (4 p.m. GMT), where the opponent is imprisoned.

“It is no longer just a question of Navalny’s freedom, but of his life,” his ally Leonid Volkov stressed on Saturday.

His lawyers deemed him “very weak” on Tuesday and demanded a transfer to a Moscow civilian hospital.

Searches have already targeted premises linked to the opponent’s organization in about twenty cities on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the specialized NGO OVD-Info.

The first arrests also took place on Wednesday, like that of Lioubov Sobol, a Moscow opposition figure, and of Mr. Navalny’s spokesperson, Kira Iarmysh.

The Interior Ministry had warned that it would take “all measures” necessary in response to the unauthorized demonstrations.

The previous protest movement, following the arrest in January of Mr. Navalny, had resulted in more than 11,000 arrests.

In addition, from next week, justice must examine a request from the Public Prosecutor’s Office to classify organizations linked to the opponent as “extremists”, which would expose all its activists to heavy prison sentences.

War on the opposition

“Putin has truly declared war, an all-out war, against those who do not agree with him,” Vladimir Milov, a close friend of Alexeï Navalny, ruled on Sunday.

Mr Putin’s annual speech, notably before Parliament, the government and regional governors, is an opportunity to set his priorities for the country. It is unlikely that he mentions the fate of his detractor, whose name he never mentions.

But important announcements are expected there. Last year, Mr Putin outlined a constitutional reform there that ultimately resulted in a referendum giving him the right to stay in the Kremlin until 2036.

In matters of foreign policy, the Western chancelleries will watch for any clue as to its intentions in Ukraine, on the borders of which more than 100,000 Russian soldiers have been massed in recent weeks.

In Washington, Kiev and Brussels, there are fears of military escalation, believing that Moscow could well prepare a pretext to enter Ukraine, as in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.

The White House will want to hear from Mr. Putin on the bilateral relationship, at its lowest, and perhaps on the proposal for a summit on neutral ground this summer with Joe Biden.

If everyone claims to want to dialogue, Moscow and Washington have also just exchanged new volleys of sanctions and cross expulsions of diplomats.

COVID and elections

Domestically, Mr. Poutine indicated that his priority would be recovery after a year of pandemic with harmful effects for an anemic economy and purchasing power at half mast for many years.

He said, during a preparatory meeting for his speech, wanting the best results “for the development of the economy, support for businesses, support for the population”.

“Every ruble must be used efficiently,” he stressed.

The theme is all the more important, in the context of the legislative elections in the fall.

If Vladimir Poutine remains popular, his party, reputed to be corrupt, is hardly so. According to the Barometer of the Levada Institute in March, the voting intentions for United Russia are at 21%.

An unpopularity on which Mr. Navalny was counting on relying.