Russian opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny told supporters after being freed from jail on Thursday that the threat of imprisonment or huge fines would do nothing to stop protests against the rule of President Vladimir Putin.
“If we have to go to jail another two or twenty-two times, we will do this,” Navalny told around a hundred supporters after leaving a south Moscow detention facility.
Anti-corruption blogger Navalny, 35, and fellow protest leader Sergei Udaltsov, also 35, were both jailed for 15 days for disobeying police orders during the protests that followed Putin’s May 7 inauguration. They were both named prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.
Left Front leader Udaltsov was freed shortly after midnight on Thursday.
But both men could now face new – and much more serious – charges of inciting mass disorder at a demonstration that turned violent in downtown Moscow on the eve of Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term.
Flanked by police as he emerged into bright sunshine and the cheers of his supporters on Thursday morning, Navalny was keen to stress what he said was the momentum of the protests against Putin’s 12-year rule.
“The protests don’t need organizers, because people know what they are fighting for,” he said, as police ordered the crowd to disperse. “The protests have won the sympathy of people far removed from politics.”
He also proposed holding a nationwide anti-Putin demonstration in early September.
Navalny was a key figure in the birth of the unprecedented protests against Putin’s rule that broke out last December and served a similar 15-day sentence last winter. Putin’s critics accuse him of corruption and a crackdown on political freedoms.
The ruling United Russia party proposed earlier this month increasing fines for participation in illegal protests from the current 5,000 rubles ($160) to 900,000 rubles ($29,000), a sum far beyond the means of all but the very wealthiest of protesters. The lower house of parliament approved the draft bill in its first reading on Tuesday and it could become law early in June, ahead of another scheduled anti-Putin protest in Moscow.
“This law will just lead to more people going on sanctioned opposition protests and battling even harder for their civil rights,” Navalny said as he was presented with flowers by a local councilor. “And for those who are fined, we will collect money.”
Navalny also said he would visit an Occupy-style protest camp on downtown Moscow’s Old Arbat later on Thursday. The camp was set up after police broke up two similar round-the-clock protests in the capital last week.
Although Navalny, the founder of the anti-graft website Rospil, enjoys massive popularity among many urban, educated Russians and was named one of the world’s top 100 most influential people by Time magazine earlier this year, he remains far from a household name here. Just 25% of respondents said they knew who he was when questioned by the independent Levada Center pollster in March. That figure is, however, just over four times higher than the amount of respondents who said they were aware of him in a similar April 2011 poll.