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Niinistö, Haavisto react to arrests of Navalny supporters; Helsinki marches peaceful

President Sauli Niinistö called for a common EU response to developments in Russia.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green) has called on Russia to release peaceful demonstrators arrested on Saturday.

Police detained more than 3,000 people and used force to break up rallies across Russia on Saturday as tens of thousands of protesters ignored extreme cold and police warnings to demand the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

He was detained a week earlier as he returned to the country following an attempted poisoning there in August. Those arrested on Saturday included his wife, Yulia Navalnaya.

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Pekka Haavisto
Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green) Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle

In a tweet on Saturday evening, Haavisto said: "Today’s arrests of peaceful protesters in Russia, including Yulia Navalnaya, are not acceptable. Those detained should be released. Safety and working conditions of journalists should also be guaranteed."

An Yle reporter at Pushkin Square in Moscow was shoved and struck by police batons despite being clearly identified as a journalist.

Niinistö: "A serious situation"

Haavisto added that EU foreign ministers will discuss the latest events on Monday.

Haavisto made his comments while a retweeting a post by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, who said: "Following unfolding events in Russia with concern. I deplore widespread detentions, disproportionate use of force, cutting down internet and phone connections."

President Sauli Niinistö then retweeted Haavisto's and Borrell's comments, adding: "A serious situation in Russia. A common line of action needed from foreign ministers on Monday."

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Mielenosoitus oppositiojohtaja Aleksei Navalnyin kiinniottamiseen liittyen Helsingin Tehtaankadulla 23.1.2021.
Demonstrators on Helsinki's Tehtaankatu on Saturday. Image: Kimmo Hiltunen / Yle

On Thursday, Niinistö held a long telephone discussion with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, including the Navalny situation. Last summer, Navalny's staff expressed gratitude for Niinistö’s help in encouraging Russian officials to allow him to be flown to Germany for life-saving medical treatment after the poisoning.

Small protests in Helsinki

A number of small, peaceful demonstrations took place in Helsinki on Saturday to protest Navalny's detention and show solidarity with those demonstrating in Russia.

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Mielenosoitus oppositiojohtaja Aleksei Navalnyin kiinniottamiseen liittyen Helsingin Tehtaankadulla 23.1.2021.
Protesters outside the Russian Embassy in Kaivopuisto. Image: Kimmo Hiltunen / Yle

Chief Inspector Seppo Kujala said Helsinki Police received notifications of 16 separate events, which he described as an unusually large number for a non-holiday.

He said authorities negotiated with demonstrators so that the marches could be arranged without violating coronavirus restrictions, which forbid gatherings of more than 10 people.

The marches, between Senate Square and the Russian Embassy in the Kaivopuisto neighbourhood, took place on a staggered basis between 11am and 5pm. Police said they took place peacefully and generally within the pandemic guidelines set by the Regional State Administrative Agency (AVI).

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