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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny receives 15-day sentence

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained by police in downtown Moscow on Sunday. Monday he was ordered jailed by a judge.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained by police in downtown Moscow on Sunday. Monday he was ordered jailed by a judge.Evgeny Feldman for Alexei Navalny's campaign, via Associated Press

MOSCOW — A day after the largest antigovernment protests in more than five years, a Moscow court Monday slapped the opposition leader behind the outburst, Alexei Navalny, with a 15-day prison sentence for resisting arrest.

At the urging of Navalny, tens of thousands of Russians — many of them in their teens and 20s — poured into the streets in scores of cities across the country Sunday to protest endemic corruption among the governing elite, despite a blanket ban against unsanctioned rallies of any size.

Police responded by beating protesters and arresting more than 1,000 in Moscow alone, although by Monday many had been released.

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As Navalny was led into the courtroom for a hearing that lasted much of the day, he told reporters that he was “amazed by the number of cities that took part in this and by how many people came out.”

After the judge ordered him jailed, Navalny was whisked away without being allowed a chance to comment further.

In another potentially destabilizing development, Russian truck drivers across the country began organizing their largest concerted protest since December 2015, against a new toll system on national highways.

Clusters of transport vehicles were parked on the shoulders of highways near major cities in what looked like preparations for roadblocks.

Navalny, 40, a charismatic opposition figure, has long been caught up in multiple court cases that he calls politically motivated. He has vowed to run against President Vladimir Putin for the presidency in 2018, even though a previous, trumped-up conviction makes that technically illegal.

The government has usually avoided jailing him, however, apparently fearful of turning him into an even bigger political martyr. The court Monday also fined him about $350 for organizing an illegal demonstration.

The protests provoked surprise and wonder among analysts and activists, many of whom had written off the public as politically apathetic. The high number of young people in the crowds struck many as particularly impressive.

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“Right now it looks like a major new phenomenon in Russia that there are young people who are active and have agendas,” said Maxim Trudolyubov, a columnist. “One important factor is that these people all grew up under Putin. They don’t remember any other leader.”

If Navalny has breathed new life into the opposition movement by successfully getting thousands of protesters onto the streets in what he said was 99 cities, there was no immediate threat to Putin’s standing.

The Russian president’s approval rating reached around 86 percent in the wake of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and has barely budged since.

Putin, as the “good czar,” enjoys a status that the rest of the government falls short of. Navalny, however, in calling for people to come out to protest high-level corruption, rather than the president, appears to have tapped into a popular sentiment.

It remained to be seen if the rallies would spread or die out. After the last protests demanding stronger democracy, which took place in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow beginning in December 2011, the government threw the book at a number of demonstrators.

Jail sentences of at least three years effectively chilled the enthusiasm of the predominantly middle-aged participants.

The aftermath of the rallies will show whether there is a political thaw or not, wrote Oleg Kashin, another columnist. If there is a new Bolotnaya case, he said, then it is not a thaw; otherwise, it is, even if no substantial policy changes follow.

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There were no independent numbers available for the turnout for the rallies. The liberal radio station Echo of Moscow estimated that more than 60,000 people had participated.

Analysts cited a number of factors for the surprising strength of the protest: pent-up anger over government suppression of peaceful demonstrations; some rankling over the dreary economy; and the weather, because Sunday was sunny and relatively warm for March.

But overwhelmingly, they cited the youthfulness of the crowds, with many presumably participating in their first political protests.

Riot police detained a demonstrator during a protest Sunday in Moscow.
Riot police detained a demonstrator during a protest Sunday in Moscow.YURI KOCHETKOV/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY