thousands of Russians turn out to fulfil Navalny's 'last wish'

By Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Thousands of people turned up at polling stations across Russia on Sunday to take part in what the anti-Kremlin opposition said was a peaceful but symbolic political protest against the re-election of President Vladimir Putin.

In an action called “Noon against Putin”, Russians who oppose the veteran Kremlin leader went to their local polling station at midday to either spoil their ballot paper in protest or to vote for one of the three candidates standing against Putin, who is widely expected to win by a landslide.

Others had vowed to scrawl the name of late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died last month in an Arctic prison, on their ballot paper.

Navalny’s allies broadcast videos on YouTube of lines of people queuing up at different polling stations across Russia at midday who they said were there to peacefully protest.

Navalny had endorsed the “Noon against Putin” plan in a message on social media facilitated by his lawyers before he died. The independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper called the planned action “Navalny’s political testament”.

“There is very little hope but if you can do something (like this) you should do it. There is nothing left of democracy,” one young woman, who did not give her name and whose face was blurred out by Navalny’s team, said at one polling station.

Another young woman at a different polling station, whose identity had been disguised in the same way, said she had voted for the “least dubious” of the three candidates running against Putin.

A male student voting in Moscow told Navalny’s channel that people like him who disagreed with the current system needed to go on living their lives regardless.

“History has shown that changes occur at the most unexpected of times,” he said.

Despite the protesters – who represent a small fraction of Russia’s 114 million voters – Putin is poised to tighten his grip on power in the election that is certain to deliver him a big victory.

The Kremlin casts Navalny’s political allies – most of whom are based outside Russia – as dangerous extremists out to destabilise the country on behalf of the West. It says Putin enjoys overwhelming support among ordinary Russians, pointing to opinion polls which put his approval rating above 80%.

With Russia’s vast landmass stretching across 11 time zones, protest voters were scattered rather than concentrated into a single mass, making it hard to estimate how many people turned up for the protest event.

The size of the queues at each polling station shown on Navalny’s channel ranged from a few dozen people to what looked like several hundred people.

Reuters journalists saw a slight increase in the flow of voters, especially younger people, at noon at some polling stations in Moscow and Yekaterinburg, with queues of several hundred people. Some said they were protesting though there were few outward signs to distinguish them from ordinary voters.

Leonid Volkov, an exiled Navalny aide who was attacked with a hammer last week in Vilnius, estimated hundreds of thousands of people had come out to polling stations in Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and other cities.

Reuters could not independently verify that estimate.

At polling stations at Russian diplomatic missions from Australia and Japan to Armenia, Kazakhstan and Georgia, hundreds of Russians stood in line at noon.

In Berlin, Yulia, Navalny’s widow, showed up at the Russian embassy to take part in the protest event there along with Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokesperson. Other Russians present clapped and chanted her name.

(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Peter Graff)

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