Thousands Of People Are Marching Against Putin In Russia

Vasily MAXIMOV

Police pounced on Alexei Navalny, considered the most serious challenger to strongman Putin, just moments after he appeared at a rally in the city's Pushkin Square.

"This is fully in line with the position that Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated many times", Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, Tass reported shortly afterward. Police dragged some of the Navalny backers into a bus and tried to talk some schoolchildren into leaving.

Navalny has little chance of influencing the election, likely to be won comfortably by President Vladimir Putin, but his ability to use social media to mobilise crowds of mostly young protesters in major cities has irked the Kremlin.

"To be honest, I don't support especially Navalny", Pavel Tikhonov, a 29-year-old who works for an worldwide company, tells NPR's Kim. At one point, they urged more people to join them, chanting, "There is still time to come, the weather is not bad".

They marched in Vladivostok, in Russia's Far East, and they marched in Siberia's Irkutsk, braving subzero temperatures.

A video stream Sunday morning from Navalny's headquarters showed police entering the office.

The news broadcasts on state television seemed to ignore the protests entirely.

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Violetta Grudina, 28, the local Navalny chapter head, said police had tackled her while she was walking along the street earlier in the day, keeping her from attending the protest.

One anchor, Dmitri Nizovtsev, was detained by police during the raid, according to video broadcast by the gheadquarters.

Navalny, analysts say, is playing a long game this election season, continuing to build up the infrastructure for a fight against Putin that could last years.

Maksim Kats, an opposition politician from one of Moscow's district councils, countered that voting was crucial, even if the outcome was known.

Some political analysts suggested that the boycott was a poor tactic. The lack of intrigue in the race is expected to hobble the effort to muster a record turnout for him.

Many voters credit him with restoring stability after the turbulence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and of rebuilding Russia's influence overseas through his foreign policy. Should he win the vote on March 18 - as is widely expected - it would extend his presidency for another six years.

McCain's description of Putin as a dictator comes in stark contrast to President Donald Trump's attitude towards Russia and the Russian leader.

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