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Russian opposition plans election protest despite crackdown

[MOSCOW] Russian opposition and ordinary Muscovites plan to take to the streets of Moscow Saturday to demand free and fair polls despite a police crackdown including the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

This week authorities jailed President Vladimir Putin's top opponent for 30 days and launched a probe targeting his allies but activists said they would not abandon plans to attend an unauthorised rally.

Authorities launched the clampdown as opposition politicians are fighting to get on the ballot for a Moscow parliament election in September amid anger over worsening living standards and Mr Putin's falling approval ratings.

Last weekend, 22,000 people turned up for a Moscow protest, the largest such demonstration in years, after authorities refused to allow opposition candidates to run, citing what critics say are spurious reasons.

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After the opposition threatened an even bigger rally on July 27 outside the mayor's offices, Mr Navalny was jailed and several disqualified candidates had their apartments and campaign offices searched in night-time raids.

On Friday Mr Navalny's allies said police had also searched their campaign headquarters in the latest raids.

CRUNCH TIME

Independent candidates urged Russians to keep up the fight, saying the country's future trajectory was at stake.

"We are no longer talking about our mandates," said would-be candidate Dmitry Gudkov.

"If we lose now, elections will cease to exist as a political instrument and the repressive machine will push the country towards 1937," Mr Gudkov added, referring to the peak of Stalin's Great Terror.

Over the past 20 years Mr Putin has muzzled independent media and left opposition parties without representation in parliament.

Mr Navalny was not allowed to run against Mr Putin in a 2018 poll because of a conviction in a fraud case which has been viewed as punishment for his activism.

Local polls have been seen as the only legal opportunity for opposition politicians to have a say in Russia's political life.

While pro-Kremlin candidates enjoyed the support of the state, independent candidates say they have been made to jump through countless hoops in order to get on the ballot.

Each conducted a genuine campaign and collected roughly 5,000 signatures from supporters.

Authorities still refused to register them, accusing them of faking some of the signatures - including those of prominent people and their own relatives.

Mr Navalny's ally Lyubov Sobol launched a hunger strike in protest.

On Thursday, the 31-year-old demanded officials review her documents and threatened to continue her strike at the offices of the Moscow election commission.

Instead, she was carried out of the building - atop a couch. Officials later said they had to take the couch out to get rid of bedbugs.

Critics say that instead of probing authorities for violating election legislation, investigators launched a probe into obstructing the work of election officials.

For that offence protest organisers risk up to five years in prison.

'ABSURDITIES BECOME NORM'

Vedomosti said that Moscow was beginning to look like an Orwellian dystopia.

Officials seek to convince people of the "honesty of their lies," the daily said.

"Over the past days the absurdities have become the norm."

Nearly 11,000 people indicated interest in the rally on Facebook.

Police asked media to notify the authorities if they planned to cover the protest and urged Russians to skip the rally altogether.

Viktoria Popova, a 30-year-old illustrator, said she could not miss the protest.

"It is impossible not to come, it's impossible to feel powerless, unable to change anything," she told AFP.

"Who would have thought it would become important to take part in such a bizarre and boring affair as the Moscow parliament election?"

AFP