Russian investigators searched the homes of several prominent opposition figures yesterday ahead of a planned pro-democracy rally that could bring tens of thousands of demonstrators into the streets of Moscow today.
Opposition leaders Alexei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov and Ilya Yashin were among those targeted in the searches, which officials said were part of an investigation into the bloody fight that broke out between protesters and riot police at the last mass demonstration in May. "They're seizing everything electronic. Even discs with photographs of my children," Mr Navalny, a prominent blogger and anti-corruption campaigner, wrote in a Twitter post.
The searches, along with a new law that dramatically raises fines for illegal protests, appear to show the government's growing impatience with the pro-democracy movement, which erupted in December after legislative elections that were marred by allegations of widespread fraud. The opposition appeared to get a second wind in May after unrest surrounding Vladimir Putin's inauguration as President sparked a series of public demonstrations.
Mr Navalny, Mr Udaltsov, Mr Yashin and the others have been called in for questioning this morning, raising the possibility that they will not be able to attend the demonstration planned for today. Opposition activists were quick to accuse the government of attempting to suppress dissent and the hash tag "Hello 1937", a reference to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's Great Purge, briefly jumped to the top of the worldwide trending list on Twitter.
Ksenia Sobchak, a television host who has been active in the pro-democracy movement and whose home was also raided yesterday, said officers humiliated her and stole cash from her apartment. "They burst in at 8am without giving me a chance to dress, robbed my apartment and humiliated me," she wrote on Twitter, adding that officers grinned as they read her personal letters aloud.
News that investigators had also searched the homes of Mr Udaltsov's parents and Mr Navalny's in-laws fuelled cries of foul play from the opposition, as did the apparent detention of an opposition blogger, Mikhail Maglov, whose whereabouts were unclear as of yesterday evening.
The offices of Rospil, one of Mr Navalny's anti-corruption organisations, were also searched and photographs of Kalashnikov-toting officers in balaclavas guarding the entrance quickly surfaced online. Investigators also attempted to search the apartment of veteran opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, but the search was called off because Mr Nemtsov wasn't home, a spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee said.
Opposition lawmakers Ilya Ponomaryov, Gennady Gudkov, and Dmitry Gudkov released a statement condemning the "tsarist" searches as "groundless" and warned that they could provoke an irreversible escalation in tensions.