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Will Russia Allow Street Protests To Continue In Moscow Or Is A Crackdown Coming?


Russian investigators have announced that they have opened criminal proceedings related to the large-scale protest in Moscow this past weekend and are classifying the demonstration as mass civil unrest. Several thousand people took to the streets on Saturday, the latest in a recent surge of protests against Russian federal and local authorities. Demonstrators met a big show of force by riot police. Here to discuss what seems to be an increasingly defiant opposition to President Vladimir Putin is Shaun Walker. He's a correspondent for The Guardian. He joins us now from Moscow.

Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: I understand protesters took to the street after they were called to do so by an opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. What exactly was the call? What's this protest about?

WALKER: On one level, the protest is about opposition candidates who wanted to stand for the Moscow city Parliament elections, which are due in September. There were several candidates who had cleared all of the hurdles - collecting signatures and so on - to stand in those elections. And they were basically told that their signatures were faked, and they couldn't be on the list. Now the Moscow city Parliament elections are not a huge deal, but I think the fact that these opposition candidates were so sort of crudely kicked off has kind of reopened this whole debate about how politics work in Russia. And that's really what's got people angry and brought them out onto the streets.

CORNISH: And we should mention that Navalny himself, not only was he arrested, but he was taken to the hospital with symptoms that his doctor claims indicate poisoning. What have you learned?

WALKER: Well, it's a very murky episode. He was jailed, actually, before the protest and sentenced to 30 days in jail. And then on Sunday morning, we got the news that Navalny had been rushed from his prison cell to hospital suffering what initially was called an allergic reaction. Then his lawyer and his personal doctors tried to get to the hospital to see him. They were eventually allowed to, and they said he hasn't had these symptoms before. It looks like not an allergy but some kind of exposure, perhaps poisoning. He's now gone back to prison. He does appear to be much better. He doesn't seem to be in any kind of serious health danger at the moment. But obviously given the timing of this and this sort of history in Russia of unfortunate things happening to opposition politicians, it certainly does look a bit suspicious.

CORNISH: Can we talk about that for a moment? Because there have been opposition candidates on the ballot in past Russian elections. So why are Russian authorities opposed to allowing these candidates to run even for local office?

WALKER: So at different times, we've seen different people in the Kremlin arguing that, you know, yes, we should let the opposition on, but we should make sure we stack the election and beat them in it. And then you see times when you think, well, actually, government ratings are falling. The last thing we need is all these annoying people to be sort of coming into the Parliament attacking us for being corrupt. So that seems to have been what's happened this time. And I think now the question that perhaps still hasn't been decided in the Kremlin is what happens now? Do they really go in hard? Do they send some people to jail for several years?

CORNISH: Right. I mean, the police have arrested more than 1,300 protesters, right? That was just on Saturday. So do you get the sense more people will be charged - I don't know - what kind of charges there will be?

WALKER: Well, most of those people who were detained on Saturday were released immediately. There are now court cases against some of the leaders who'd been given the kind of sentences we've seen again and again - eight days, 10 days, 30 days. What we haven't seen yet is a sense that they're going to go even further and say, OK, you're going to be charged with, for example, causing a mass disturbance, which is something they could do. And those charges could end up being several years. And I think those questions are still being decided in the authorities. Can they just sort of muddle through this or do they feel they need to make a really quite repressive stand?

CORNISH: That's Guardian correspondent Shaun Walker. We reached him on Skype from Moscow.

Thank you so much for your reporting.

WALKER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.