Thousands in Russia protest, US offers tempered response

PHOTO: Riot police officers detain a protester during a rally in central Moscow, March 26, 2017.PlayAlexander Utkin/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH Russian opposition leader gets jail sentence after mass protests

Stirred by allegations of corruption, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in dozens of cities across Russia yesterday, in the largest anti-government demonstrations the country has seen in years.

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Between 7,000 and 30,000 people demonstrated in Moscow, and up to 10,000 in St. Petersburg. Rallies were reported in 82 cities and towns in total.

It’s unclear how many have been arrested. Independent Russian news agency Interfax reported about 500 people were arrested, while Russian human rights group OVD-info reported more than 700 people in Moscow, 34 in St. Petersburg and between 80 and 100 in other cities.

WHAT TO KNOW

These appear to be the largest protests since fraud allegations in parliamentary elections sparked uprisings, which began in 2011 and continued in the following year, countering harsh laws restricting protests that were enacted after that time.

Yesterday's protests were precipitated by an anti-corruption group’s investigation into Russian prime minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev, alleging that he used phony companies and charities to build a massive empire of real estate and luxury goods for his own profit.

The Fund for Combatting Corruption (FBK) and its leader, Putin-opposition activist Alexei Navalny, released a report earlier this month and called for the protests Sunday as a way to demand that Russian authorities investigate.

Navalny, who has said he will challenge Russian president Vladimir Putin for the presidency in 2018, was arrested yesterday, slapped with a $350 dollar fine for violating public meeting rules and sentenced to 15 days in jail for disobeying police. His organization’s offices were raided by police, who arrested 20 staff members.

The Kremlin dismissed the allegations against Medvedev and has refused to investigate. After Sunday’s protests, the Kremlin also condemned the demonstrations while trying to downplay them.

"What we saw in several places, especially in Moscow -- it was provocation and lies," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters today, accusing the organizers of tricking people into protesting and paying teenagers to participate.

"We regret that our active citizens, many probably out of ignorance, didn’t want to use the alternative venues," he said, referencing the spaces far outside Moscow’s city center where authorities said the protests could have been held legally.

While saying the government respects people’s right to demonstrate, Peskov said this march was an "absolutely forbidden protest action."

State media has ignored the protests as well. Western journalists reporting in the country said Russian television made no mention of the protests, instead covering corruption in Ukraine and South Korea. Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine that aggregates news stories, did not include the protests in their roundup.

Critics in the U.S. were also quick to question the Trump administration’s initial silence on the protests. The State Department released a statement after an American journalist was arrested, but for hours the administration said nothing about the protests themselves -- or Putin’s crackdown.

"The United States government cannot be silent about Russia’s crackdown on peaceful protesters," said Republican Senator Ben Sasse in a statement. "Free speech is what we’re all about and Americans expect our leaders to call out thugs who trample the basic human rights of speech, press, assembly, and protest."

Later, on Sunday night, the State Department issued a statement from acting spokesperson Mark Toner, "strongly" condemning the arrests of peaceful protesters and the targeting of Navalny and his anti-corruption organization.

"Detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers, and journalists is an affront to core democratic values ... We call on the government of Russia to immediately release all peaceful protesters. The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law, and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution," it read in part.

The White House has not issued its own statement, but at today's briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer said the State Department's comment "reflects the view of the United States government."

Trump has called for cooperation with Russia, especially in the fight against ISIS, and previously refused to criticize Putin’s record on human rights. In an interview last month with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, he dismissed the interviewer’s comment that "Putin’s a killer," saying, "We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?"

That is a contrast from the U.S. reaction the last time there were major anti-government protests in Russia.

After reports that parliamentary elections in 2011 were rife with fraud, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a "full investigation."

"We have serious concerns about the conduct of those elections ... The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted, and that means they deserve fair, free, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them," she said two days after the election at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Those comments struck a nerve in Moscow as thousands began to protest. Putin then publicly blamed Clinton, saying she incited them.

According to a U.S. intelligence report released in January that blamed Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, that episode, in part, led to Putin’s campaign "to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency."

"Putin most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because he has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012," the report read, "and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him."

ABC News's Ben Gittleson, Patrick Reevell, Anastasia Butler, and Michael Edison Hayden contributed to this report.

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