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Heeding Navalny’s call, Russians rally against ‘pseudo-polls’

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Moscow police broke Sunday into the headquarters of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and detained his aides as Russians rallied across the country to protest upcoming "pseudo-elections."

Ahead of the main protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg police broke into Navalny's headquarters in the Russian capital using a power saw, to interrupt a live broadcast covering a series of protests in the east of the country.

Police also detained several employees of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation as well as supporters in the regions, his team said.

The charismatic 41-year-old opposition politician reiterated his call for Russians to stage rallies calling for an active boycott of a March 18 presidential poll that he and his allies refer to as "pseudo-elections", despite the prospect of mass arrests.

"If you don't go, you won't forgive yourself later," he said in a video address.

"Sooner or later they will cut your door too."

'Police are everywhere'

Navalny also said he planned to join the main Moscow rally set to begin at 1100 GMT, admitting that he would most likely be arrested.

He said police officers were watching his residential building and garage but added that he was not home. "Police, police, police are everywhere," he added.

Authorities dramatically beefed up security in the centre of Moscow, dispatching police vans and passenger buses to Tverskaya Avenue, the Russian capital's main thoroughfare.

Earlier Sunday opposition supporters rallied in far eastern Russia and Siberia, including in the northern city of Yakutsk where Russians rallied despite temperatures of around minus 45 Celsius (minus 49 Fahrenheit).

Overall, around 40 people were detained across the country, said OVD-Info, an independent group which monitors crackdowns on demonstrations.

'Thieves, bigots, perverts'

"Your life is at stake," Navalny told supporters in a video address earlier this week.

"How many more years do you want to live with these thieves, bigots and perverts in power? We've already endured this for 18 years."

Navalny warned that authorities planned to clamp down on his youngest supporters, tweeting a screenshot of a text message sent around ahead of the rallies.

The message urged parents to make sure their children do not attend the Sunday protests. "Raids are possible," it said.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that unsanctioned rallies would lead to "certain consequences" -- a thinly-veiled promise of punishment.

Navalny -- seen as the only politician with enough stamina to take on Putin -- has built a robust protest movement despite constant police harassment, tapping into the anger of a younger generation yearning for change.

He says the upcoming election will be little more than a coronation of Putin who is expected to win a fourth presidential term and extend his Kremlin power until 2024.

Last year Navalny mounted a forceful bid to run for president but officials ruled him ineligible due to a criminal conviction which he says is politically motivated.

Navalny has said he would use the full force of his campaign -- including over 200,000 volunteers -- to organise "voters' strikes" and encourage Russians to stay away from polling stations on election day.

After 18 years of leadership, both as president and prime minister, Putin fatigue is spreading across Russia.

'Turnout important'

The Kremlin's biggest headache is the possibility of a low turnout which will harm Putin's hopes for a strong new mandate, analysts say.

Navalny seeks to take the shine off Putin's expected victory and highlight voter apathy in his crusade against the 65-year-old leader.

"Turnout at these elections is extremely important for Putin," Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Centre, an independent polling group, told AFP.

"He needs to create the impression of not just a convincing victory but unanimous nationwide support, a plebiscite."

In a November poll by the Levada Centre, just 58 percent of respondents said they planned to vote, down from 69 percent before the 2012 election and 75 percent before the 2008 vote. Putin won the previous election in 2012 on a turnout of 65 percent and authorities are pulling out all the stops to boost the figures this year.

"People's readiness to go to polls was low before the New Year but it's increasing now," said Gudkov, speaking after receiving new data which the pollster would not publicise.

Labelled a "foreign agent," the Levada Centre has announced it would not be publishing pre-election surveys for fear of running into trouble with the authorities.


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Alexei Navalny
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