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Top Navalny allies arrested ahead of anti-Putin protests as Russian leader warns west

Oliver Carroll
·3-min read
<p>Russian president Vladimir Putin leaves the hall after his annual state of the nation address today (21 April)</p> (AP)

Russian president Vladimir Putin leaves the hall after his annual state of the nation address today (21 April)

(AP)

Russian authorities arrested key members of Alexei Navalny’s team on Wednesday ahead of nationwide protests and a pugnacious state of the nation address by President Vladimir Putin.

In a highly charged atmosphere, police first detained Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for the jailed Putin critic’s anti-corruption foundation, in southern Moscow, then Mr Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh.

By mid afternoon, police had arrested 115 people at protests across Russia in support of Mr Navalny, the OVD-Info protest monitoring group said.

Mr Navalny, who survived a nerve agent attack in August, is now three weeks into a hunger strike in protest at being denied access to civilian doctors. His supporters claim he is now in a critical condition, and that the Kremlin is deliberately subjecting him to the risk of sudden death.

On Sunday, Mr Navalny’s team called for protests to apply maximum pressure on Mr Putin, with Russia’s longtime president due to give his annual state of the nation address in central Moscow at noon.

The anti-Putin rallies began in the Russian Far East an hour before the start of Mr Putin’s speech, with arrests already reported in Magadan. They will run through 8 time zones before starting at 7pm in the capital itself.

However, Vladimir Putin made no mention of his political nemesis during an 80-minute annual state of the nation speech. Instead, he devoted most of the annual address to domestic concerns about poverty, demographic problems and a stagnating economy.

The 21-year president announced an expansion of social promises. Some appeared geared to September’s parliamentary elections. There would be a one-off 10,000 rouble (£93) payment to all families with schoolchildren in mid-August, he said. There would also be new benefits for some pregnant women and single-parent families.

But the conservative speech contained none of the revolutionary announcements of last year’s address, when Mr Putin outlined an overhaul of the constitution designed to reset term limits.

It was only in the traditional foreign policy slot towards the end of the speech that Mr Putin became truly animated.

Criticising Russia had become a “sport” in the west, he said. Russia was “tolerant” and “patient” but moves to threaten Moscow’s self-defined security were “unacceptable”.

Russian opposition activist Lyubov Sobol was arrested in Moscow on WednesdayAP
Russian opposition activist Lyubov Sobol was arrested in Moscow on WednesdayAP

“Anyone who threatens the fundamental interests of our security will regret it like they have not regretted anything in a long time,” he said. “Russia’s response will be swift, asymmetrical and tough.”

The Russian leader claimed the “collective west” had crossed undefined “boundaries” in Belarus, where autocrat Alexander Lukashenko has clung on to power with Russian support despite a popular uprising and losing an election badly.

Mr Putin repeated shaky claims that Mr Lukashenko had been subject to an assassination attempt – an unverified theory that some suggested had been put forward to justify a soft annexation of the eastern Slavic state by Moscow.

The Belarusian leader himself trailed plans for a “historical” agreement with Russia in the lead-up to Wednesday’s speech. In the event, the address contained no specific announcement on Belarus.

Mr Lukashenko is, however, due in Moscow tomorrow for talks that could change that.

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