Russian opposition plans major Moscow protest after crackdown

As he enters his third decade in power, Putin’s approval ratings have dropped significantly in recent months. (File/AFP)
Updated 10 August 2019

Russian opposition plans major Moscow protest after crackdown

  • In recent weeks, thousands have attended street protests calling for free and fair elections
  • Riot police and the national guard have used more violent tactics than previously and detained more than 2,000 at the last two rallies

MOSCOW: Russian opposition supporters plan a major protest in Moscow on Saturday after police detained thousands at recent demonstrations that have been among the largest since President Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012.
In recent weeks, thousands have attended street protests calling for free and fair elections after the exclusion of several opposition figures, including allies of top Putin critic Alexei Navalny, from local Moscow elections next month.
Riot police and the national guard have used more violent tactics than previously and detained more than 2,000 at the last two rallies, which were not authorized by city officials.
Most opposition candidates who have been banned from participating in the vote have been jailed for violating protest laws.
A dozen protesters including university students face criminal charges of “mass disorder” that call for lengthy jail terms, despite their supporters insisting protests were peaceful.
Saturday’s rally has been authorized which means participants should not face detention for protesting at the agreed location, but Navalny, who is currently in jail, has urged supporters to walk peacefully through the city afterwards.
Moscow police and the powerful Investigative Committee issued a warning against participating in unsanctioned protests which it said would be “immediately halted.”
Showing the movement’s appeal to young Russians, popular electronic and rap musicians are expected to play at the rally and mainstream celebrities have announced they will attend.
One of Russia’s most famous rappers, Oxxxymiron, urged his fans to go, as did a star YouTube blogger Yury Dud.
“Let’s not accept it as normal when innocent people are thrown in jail or harshly beaten up by police,” Dud wrote on Instagram to his 2.3 million followers.
The latest demonstrations come as the authorities this week mounted their harshest attack yet on Navalny’s team, focusing on his anti-corruption foundation which publishes investigations of officials close to Putin.
On Thursday investigators raided the foundation’s office as part of a probe into alleged acceptance of donations of laundered money and a court froze the foundation’s accounts.
“This is the most aggressive attempt yet to gag us,” Navalny wrote in a blog entry he issued through lawyers while serving a 30-day sentence.
One of the foundation’s lawyers, Lyubov Sobol, has been on hunger strike for weeks after being refused as a candidate in Moscow.
“These are all acts of political intimidation, political repression,” she told journalists on Friday, condemning the criminal cases launched against activists as “fabricated and politically motivated.”
As he enters his third decade in power, Putin’s approval ratings have dropped significantly in recent months and critics say authorities fear any outlet calling for wider political change.
Moscow has even accused the US of encouraging people to attend protests, after the embassy posted the route of a recent march along with warnings to avoid the area.
“The repressive scenario that the authorities are relying on can probably dampen down open discontent but is hardly likely to reach the root of the problem,” wrote Vedomosti daily in an editorial.
“A large section of society is not represented in power.”


Afghan delegates head online for crucial talks

Updated 01 June 2020

Afghan delegates head online for crucial talks

  • Peace hopes rest on virtual forum with Taliban amid virus threat

KABUL: Afghan government and Taliban delegates are expected to begin online talks in mid-June in a bid to end a decades-old conflict in the country, officials told Arab News on Sunday.

While past meetings have been held in person, the latest round of negotiations will take place online because of the threat of coronavirus in the war-ravaged country.

“We see no challenges, the atmosphere and preparations are all set for the talks,” Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah, newly appointed chief of the High Council for National Reconciliation, told Arab News.

Negotiations could begin in “the next 10 or 15 days,” he said.

“The announcement of a cease-fire, a reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners were all requirements for the start of the talks, and we have had progress on them recently,” Khawzoon said.

On Wednesday the Afghan government released a list of 20 delegates due to hold peace talks with the Taliban.

The team will be led by Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a former spy chief who has held indirect negotiations with the militants in the past outside Afghanistan, he added.

In the lead-up to the talks, President Ashraf Ghani’s government will release 3,000 more Taliban prisoners, an official close to the Afghan leader told Arab News on condition of anonymity.

More than 2,000 Taliban inmates have already been freed as part of a historic peace deal in February.

In return, the Taliban released hundreds of government troops and, in a surprise move, announced a three-day cease-fire last week for Eid Al-Fitr.

The peace moves follow a buildup in fighting between the two sides despite the pandemic. Taliban attacks killed at least 146 people and injured 430 during Ramadan. 

Fears had been growing that the peace deal signed on Feb. 29 between the Taliban and the US would collapse.

The joint cease-fire followed talks in Qatar last week between the Taliban and Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan.

Khalilzad later traveled to Kabul for meetings with Afghan political leaders over a reduction in violence and an exchange of prisoners. 

“We welcome the Taliban’s decision to observe a cease-fire during Eid, as well as the Afghan government reciprocating and announcing its own,” Khalilzad said last Sunday.

Increasing Taliban attacks on government troops, and political infighting between Ghani and Abdullah over who would assume office as president, have delayed the talks.

After Washington failed to reconcile Ghani and Abdullah, both leaders agreed two weeks ago to share power, with Ghani leading the country for another five years and Abdullah appointed as chief of the peace talks.

Khalilzad described the cease-fire agreement as a “momentous opportunity that should not be missed,” and pressed both sides to agree on a new date to start negotiations.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also urged the two sides to start peace talks, with the release of prisoners as a first step. 

Pompeo said that he expected the Taliban “to adhere to their commitment not to allow released prisoners to return to the battlefield.”

Ghani said the release of Taliban inmates would be “expedited” and that his government’s negotiating team was ready to begin talks “as soon as possible.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, could not be reached for comment on the Taliban’s stance.

In the past, the group has insisted it will take part in talks with Kabul only after all 5,000 Taliban prisoners are freed.

Experts hope the latest developments are a step in the right direction.

“The Taliban do not seem to have any reservations about the structure of the government team, so the hope is high that the talks will take place by June 15,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, an analyst, told Arab News.

“Some of Taliban’s field commanders seem to be divided on the talks, hoping to capture power again after the departure of US forces (by next spring), while the political leaders are pushing for a political settlement,” he said.