04/22/2021, 10.16
RUSSIA
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Putin promises gas to dachas. Demonstrations and arrests of Naval’ny supporters

by Vladimir Rozanskij

The Russian president delivered his speech to the nation before the country’s elite, including Patriarch Kirill. "Freedom for Naval'nyj" in 100 cities. Putin makes several election promises. About 1000 protesters arrested.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - April 21 was a showdown between President Vladimir Putin and his main opponent Alexei Naval’ny. The first gave his speech to the nation in the Senate hall, in the Manege square next to the Kremlin, before a gathering of the nation’s elite of the country (photo 2), including Patriarch Kirill (Gundjaev) and other Orthodox metropolitans. The second is instead still under observation in the prison hospital in the city of Vladimir, while hundreds of thousands of his supporters took to the streets in 100 cities in Russia to demand his release (photo 1).

Gas for Putin

Putin's 78-minute speech had been postponed several times (usually held in January-February), and was very reminiscent of the "programmatic” speeches given by Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader of the current president's youth. Without touching any hot topic - from the tensions on the borders with Ukraine to the "Navalnyj case" itself - Putin read a "shopping list", announcing the country's losses in the year of the pandemic and promising a speedy rebirth: "We beat the virus, now we will pick ourselves up again," he said with some emphasis.

The most "sensational" and appreciated announcement for Russian citizens was the promise to provide free gas supplies "up to the borders of the dacha villages", the country houses towards which the Russians traditionally flock immediately after the thaw, at the end of April and during the holidays at the beginning of May. For many years, since the Medvedev presidency at the end of the 2010s, the promise of "free gas" has been repeated, in the sense of supply lines being provided at the expense of the state, being one of the most important items of expenditure in the family budget. Now the cost has been reduced at least for the spring and summer months, even if not in the first houses.

The gas promise, along with other similar promises of reductions and rebates, has a clear pre-election flavour, and the president went 9on to pepper budgetary issues with complaints about Western enemies. Avoiding mentioning the classics of Russian literature, he compared these enemies to Mowgli's adversaries in Kipling's "Jungle Book", bewildered by Bandar-Log monkeys and continually assaulted by the tiger Shere Kahn.

Crowds for Naval'nyj

The tempting monkeys were perhaps Putin's only call to the crowd that was demonstrating in favour of Navalnyj in the square at the same time. The protest was scheduled in the central squares of the cities at 7 pm, and opened with several hundred demonstrators in Vladivostok, where 7 pm coincides with 10 am in Moscow, as Putin’s speech began. In the Far East, the processions took place in a peaceful atmosphere, with few police interventions, who had already carried out numerous arrests and preventive searches. As the rallies approached the capital, the climate became increasingly heated: thousands of people took to the streets in Tomsk, the Siberian city where Naval'nyj had been poisoned in August 2020.

In many cities the police closed the central spaces with blocks and cordons, and in several places there were police charges and arrests: 6 people in Kurgan, in western Siberia; 32 in Ufa, the capital of Bashkiria in the Urals. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, all traffic lights in the center were stopped on red for pedestrians, even if people still crossed the street at their own risk. In the "two capitals" the supporters of Navalnyj gathered in various central areas, in groups of 500 people, and then tried to converge towards the main squares, that of the Manege in Moscow (where Putin spoke in the morning) and that of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The gatherings had not received the permission of the police, who nevertheless tried to keep a low profile, without any sensational or repressive episodes (however they arrested about 1000 protesters across Russia), now changing tactic to numerous convictions for "extremism" and a harsh censorship of "navalnists" throughout the country.

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