Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday denied claims by opposition leader Alexei Navalny that he owned a luxury property on the Black Sea valued at $ 1.35 billion when the opposition called for new nationwide demonstrations.
Courts across Russia last weekend imposed short prison terms on protesters arrested during opposition rallies across the country while the State Department accused US diplomats of encouraging Russians to join the protests.
Navalny’s aides urged his followers to take to the streets again next Sunday, before a trial was launched that would leave Russia’s most prominent Kremlin critic behind bars for more than three years.
The 44-year-old activist was arrested a little over a week ago while returning to Moscow from Germany, where he was recovering from exposure to a Soviet-designed poison.
He urged supporters in dozens of cities to rally over the past weekend and released a two-hour survey of the palatial oceanfront to encourage allies to demonstrate.
A record number of arrests were recorded at the rallies, and Putin on Monday denied having anything to do with the property in Navalny’s video, which has now been viewed 86 million times.
“Nothing listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives and has never been,” Putin said during a video call with Russian students.
Navalny’s report – by far its most watched anti-corruption investigation – claims the property is valued at $ 1.35 billion and includes everything from an underground ice rink to a casino.
Leonid Volkov, an important advisor to the Kremlin critic, called on the Russians to take to the streets again on January 31, “for Navalny’s freedom, for freedom for all and for justice”.
At the rallies on Saturday there were clashes between police and demonstrators, of which 3,700 people were arrested, according to the OVD Info monitoring group.
Putin said Monday that Russian citizens have the right to express themselves but must do so “within the law”.
According to OVD-Info, more than 80 people had been sentenced to short-term prison terms for the protests by Monday morning, while at least 15 criminal investigations were initiated.
Putin also said minors should not be encouraged to join the rallies, citing a claim by authorities that the opposition had encouraged young people to protest.
“That’s what terrorists do. They put women and children before themselves,” Putin said.
Political scientist Alexei Zakharov, who cited polls conducted at the Moscow rally, said on Facebook that the average age of the protesters was 31, while only 10 percent of the participants were 18 years or younger.
Tech companies take flak
The Russian State Department on Monday reiterated claims that US diplomats had encouraged Russians to attend the rallies, saying it had made a “strong protest” to the American ambassador.
This claim followed earlier claims by the Kremlin that the US embassy meddled in Russian affairs by posting protest routes ahead of the rallies.
A spokeswoman for the embassy told AFP that it was “routine” for diplomatic missions to send security messages to their citizens abroad.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Moscow would investigate American technology companies for “interference” in connection with the demonstrations.
Before the rallies, Russian media watchdog Roskomnadzor ordered social media platforms such as YouTube and Instagram to delete calls for demonstrations posted on their platforms.
Navalny’s arrest was widely condemned in the West, and the European Union said it was considering new sanctions against Russia – although EU ministers at a meeting on Monday decided it was “premature,” according to a European diplomat.
EU foreign policy leader Josep Borrell is due to visit Moscow early next month and said he would pressure the Kremlin to arrest Navalny.
Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the United Nations Secretary-General, meanwhile, said that people should not be detained for “expression only” and highlighted the “fundamental right” to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and published from a syndicated feed.)