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Navalny's Group Targeted Over Protests As Kremlin Seen Weighing Crackdown

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny attends a court hearing after being detained at a protest rally against corruption in Moscow on March 27.
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny attends a court hearing after being detained at a protest rally against corruption in Moscow on March 27.

MOSCOW -- Following large protests led by opposition leader Aleksei Navalny over the weekend, Russian authorities quickly moved to shut down his anticorruption foundation, sealing off its offices, seizing equipment, and jailing the Kremlin opponent and eight key staff members.

But despite the arrests, analysts note the activists were brought up on misdemeanor charges and handed jail sentences ranging from one week to 25 days, suggesting the Kremlin is carefully weighing whether to crack down further with just under a year until a presidential election.

"The situation is up in the air," says Andrei Kolesnikov, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "There is no political decision yet. This political decision is not going to be taken by law enforcement, but somewhere in the Kremlin."

The March 26 rallies caught many by surprise with their scale, reach, and youthful demographic. A rally was even held in Daghestan, a tightly controlled southern region that during the 2012 presidential election handed President Vladimir Putin more than 92 percent of the vote, according to official results.

The protests in Moscow saw a record number of arrests -- more than 1,000, according to a respected independent monitor -- and indicated strong currents of discontent. This has called into question the narrative that Putin will coast easily to a new term in the Kremlin, becoming Russia's longest-serving ruler since Josef Stalin.

Although modest in a country of 142 million, the numbers Navalny drew across dozens of regions -- around 60,000, according to liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy -- were significant, as many took to the streets in defiance of police bans.

WATCH: RFE/RL's Russian Service asked people in Moscow what they knew about the Sunday protests:

Vox Pop: Opinions On Moscow's Anticorruption Rally
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Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said this week that organizers had "provoked" participants into joining "illegal" protests.

The last time opposition protests resulted in comparable mass arrests was in May 2012 on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square, where liberal activists had been protesting for months -- first against federal elections marred by fraud allegations, and then against Putin's return to the Kremlin after a four-year stint as prime minister.

The police investigation and the jailing of activists became known as the Bolotnaya Affair and dealt a final blow to a protest movement that was already fizzling out.

After Putin's reelection, he tightened regulations on street protests and also pivoted politically to the conservative working class. Two years later, in March 2014, Putin decisively struck the opposition from the political agenda as he annexed Ukraine's Crimea, triggering a powerful wave of patriotic euphoria.

'Bolotnaya 2.0'

With Navalny appearing to have galvanized protest energy as the country struggles to emerge from its longest recession in two decades, it remains unclear how the government will respond.

"If they open criminal cases, as they did with Bolotnaya, and launch Bolotnaya 2.0, it will mean that authorities are preparing for repressive scenarios," Kolesnikov says. "I think for the time being they are inclined to use misdemeanor charges rather than criminal. It's another matter that if this happens again, there could be harsh repressions."

In a sign that the authorities are already taking precautions, Moscow's Pushkin Square -- the epicenter of the weekend protests -- was sealed off on March 28 for apparent renovations until the end of the summer. Such closures are widely seen as a common tactic to prevent demonstrators from gathering at protest hotspots.

Meanwhile, Roman Rubanov, the director of Navalny's anticorruption foundation, told RFE/RL that he believed the authorities are trying to paralyze the organization's work.

"We're working in emergency mode," he said. "We're working in a situation when our organization is under threat. Of course we have a plan for such events, but the normal work of our organization has been interrupted, and for the time being it is hard to imagine how it is going to continue. We don't know when we are going to get our building back and what they've taken. In material terms, they may have taken away a lot."

In a slickly produced video published the day after the rally, activists said police had arrived with sniffer dogs at the organization's office on March 26 and ordered them out of the building over a supposed bomb threat.

Activists said electricity was then cut to the offices where they had been broadcasting coverage of nationwide rallies to what they said was an audience of 3.7 million. All staff in the office were detained, and the following day courts confirmed the arrest of eight staff members and five technical staff involved in the broadcast, jailing them for between seven and 25 days.

Rubanov said on March 28 that the office remained under the control of security services and that equipment had been removed from the premises.

"For the third day now some kind of activity is taking place in our office, and we're not allowed in. It's being guarded by police. In general, this looks very much more like robbery or theft than legal action," he said.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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