Navalny fans protest in Geneva ahead of Putin-Biden summit

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A man wearing a Vladimir Putin mask takes part in a demonstration for imprisoned Alexei Navalny, poster at left, in Geneva, Switzerland Tuesday, June 15, 2021. US President Joe Biden and Russia President Vladimir Putin will meet for talks in Geneva on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

GENEVA – There was a bare-chested man in a Vladimir Putin mask doling out fake bills as mock corruption payments, and a Czech fitness instructor, who endured eight hours of tattooing to put a likeness of Putin critic Alexey Navalny on his chest.

They were among a couple of dozen supporters of Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader, who staged a colorful, cheeky rally Tuesday on a sunny Geneva square — a day before Putin arrives in the Swiss city for a high-profile summit with U.S. President Joe Biden.

Despite the tiny turnout — with possibly more journalists there than demonstrators — the protest was well-orchestrated with banners and gimmicks, in a show of dissent that participants said might garner a crackdown by security forces in Putin’s Russia.

U.S. officials have said Biden was expected to discuss the war in Ukraine and human rights in Russia, including Navalny’s case, among an array of topics on the table Wednesday.

Across town in recent days, a mural of a smiling Navalny holding his fingers in a heart shape with the words “Hero of our time” in French mysteriously popped up — in reference to a similar mural in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, that was quickly covered up by authorities.

At the demonstration, banners called for the liberation of political prisoners generally and for Navalny himself. Protesters chanted for a “Free Russia!”

Czech national Petr Pavelec said he had long planned to have his chest tattooed with the likeness of Navalny — and moved it up to last weekend to make the protest.

Pavelec said he deeply admired Navalny's courage.

“I believe what he’s doing is not just for Russia, but the rest of the world. This incredible guy sacrificed himself by returning to Russia after being poisoned,” he said. That was a reference to Navalny’s poisoning with a nerve agent similar to Soviet-era Novichok, for which he was transported to Germany for medical care before returning home -- only to be arrested.

Andrey Zaitsev, a Russian who was one of the protest organizers, said he and colleagues had traveled from Berlin for the rally, and planned to make a film about Putin’s trip to Geneva.

“We are the fruits of the labor of Vladimir Putin. If Russia had a working civil society, we wouldn’t even exist as civil activists. We would have a democracy and we would merely be working for the betterment of our society,” he said.

“All of us are united in one matter or another, chiefly because of Vladimir Putin,” Zaitsev said.

The rally, which took place on a square that the Swiss have authorized for any protests during the summit, marked just one effort to leverage public attention on some of the more hot-button issues that Putin and Biden were likely to address — human rights and arms control among them.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, highlighted the Treaty on the Prohibition for Nuclear Weapons which the U.S. and Russia have both shunned. She said they account for nearly 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenals.

“I think we need to have moderate expectations on success of the meeting itself,” said Fihn, whose group won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. “But hopefully this will set up a process where they can hand over to diplomats to actually start negotiating reductions of nuclear weapons.”

Speaking in an interview on a dock across Lake Geneva from the summit site, Fihn insisted that Putin and Biden could “really drive progress” on nuclear weapons reductions.

“There’s a lot of issues on the agenda for the U.S. and Russia to discuss, of course,” she said. “But I do think that when it comes to nuclear weapons, it’s really THE issue — because these two individuals have the power to end the world as we know it.”