President Vladimir Putin has described mass protests held at the weekend demanding the release of Alexey Navalny as illegal and dangerous, as he faces mounting pressure from the West and thousands of Russians over the leading Kremlin critic’s arrest.
Putin on Monday fielded questions from students in a video call from his Zavidovo residence after tens of thousands of Russians demonstrated against Navalny’s detention in several cities and towns on Saturday.
“All people have the right to express their point of view within the framework of the law. Everything that goes beyond the framework of the law is not only counterproductive but also dangerous,” he said.
“In the history of our country, we have repeatedly encountered situations when the situation went far beyond the law, and shook our society and the state, where not only people who were engaged in it suffered but also those people who had nothing to do with it.
“All these events about which I just talked about – no one should use them trying to reach their ambitious goals and objectives, especially in the field of politics. This is not how politics is done, at least not a responsible politics.”
Police detained more than 3,000 protesters and used force to break up the rallies, which saw people ignore extreme cold and police warnings to publicly call for the 44-year-old’s immediate release.
Several protesters were injured in clashes with riot police, the OVD-Info protest monitor group reported.
Navalny, Putin’s most prominent critic, was arrested on January 17 as he returned to Russia after five months in Germany spent recovering from an alleged poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.
The Kremlin says it has seen no evidence that Navalny was poisoned.
After landing in Moscow and being immediately arrested, he was soon jailed for 30 days over alleged parole violations relating to a case dating back to 2014 over embezzlement charges which Navalny believes were politically motivated.
Navalny ally calls for more protests
Meanwhile, Navalny’s allies called for more demonstrations across Russia on January 31 – Sunday – to demand his release.
If they take place, the protests would come just two days before Navalny is due in court on February 2, on charges of breaking the terms of the 2014 suspended sentence.
Leonid Volkov, the head of the opposition politician’s regional network, called on Twitter for Russians across the country to take to the streets “for Navalny’s freedom, for freedom for all, and for justice”.
Navalny’s team had earlier spurred on his call for the rallies over the weekend by releasing an investigation into a lavish property on Russia’s Black Sea coast that Navalny alleged is owned by Putin.
Several of his close associates, including prominent activist Lyubov Sobol and his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, were arrested last week, for calling on Russians to join the demonstrations. Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was also detained and later released.
Putin on Monday denied ownership of the sprawling mansion.
“Nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did,” he said.
Rising tensions with Western powers
Navalny’s imprisonment has led to increased friction between Russia and Western powers, including the United States and European Union.
The Kremlin has said it will not heed calls by three EU countries – former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – for sanctions over his case because it is a domestic matter.
The EU on Monday was considering fresh sanctions on Russia over Navalny’s case, and the Kremlin’s handling of the weekend’s protests, during a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Brussels.
Russia on Sunday accused the US of interfering in its domestic affairs over Navalny’s detention.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov took particular issue with a US embassy “demonstration alert” that warned US citizens in Russia of possible unrest, telling a state TV channel on Sunday that Washington’s interference in Russian domestic affairs was “absolute”.
“Of course, those publications are inappropriate,” Peskov said.
“And of course, indirectly, they are absolute interference in our internal affairs.”
A US embassy spokeswoman told AFP that it was “routine practice” for US embassies and consulates to issue safety messages to American citizens abroad.