MOSCOW - Russian police on Saturday detained dozens of people, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as they broke up an anti-Vladimir Putin rally that mustered hundreds in Moscow in defiance of an official ban.
Scores of Muscovites, many holding white roses, defied the authorities by gathering at Lubyanka Square, the seat of the FSB security services, despite temperatures of minus 14 degrees Celsius (seven degrees Fahrenheit). Police pushed protesters from the square and shoved some into vans two hours into the protest, following warnings that the rally would be broken up.
“By the end it was rough,” Nikolai Svanidze, a member of the Kremlin-linked human rights council told Dozhd television.
Police said around 40 people had been detained. “The unsanctioned action has now been thwarted and serious provocations were prevented,” police said in a statement.
Navalny, possibly the most charismatic figure in the protest movement, was detained a day after investigators launched a new criminal probe against him for suspected fraud. “It’s raving mad. (They) simply snatched me from the crowd,” Navalny tweeted from inside a police van.
Besides Navalny, police also arrested Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of leftist group the Left Front, and activists Ilya Yashin and Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Putin’s late mentor Anatoly Sobchak.
“One of the policemen mentioned that we had criminal intentions,” Yashin told Echo of Moscow radio by telephone from detention. The prominent figures arrested all noted that the police vans holding them had been equipped with webcams to keep close watch on their behaviour. Police put the turnout at around 700 people, over 300 of them journalists and bloggers, but an AFP correspondent said the number of the protesters appeared to be significantly higher.
City authorities had banned an opposition march through the city after several days of negotiations with the activists, and the opposition had urged Russians to simply turn up at Lubyanka Square without slogans.
People laid white lilies, carnations and chrysanthemums at the Solovetsky Stone, a monument to victims of Stalin-era purges adorning the square, as a helicopter hovered overhead. By the end of the rally, the monument was blanketed by piles of flowers.
In an apparent attempt to warm themselves up, some locked hands to perform the traditional Russian circle dance, the khorovod, around the memorial stone singing a folk song and chanting “Russia will be free.” Two hours into the action, police began pushing out the protesters from the square and shoving some into police vans as the protesters cried out “shame.”
Shortly afterwards the Lubyanka Square was empty. “Our authorities are repressive,” one protester, 48-year-old businessman Andrei Genin, told AFP, sporting a white ribbon.
The opposition movement is hoping to maintain momentum despite internal divisions between liberals, leftists and nationalists and the authorities’ tough crackdown on dissenters since Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May.
Up to 120,000 people gathered near the Kremlin walls at the peak of the protests last winter, a huge number for a country that lost its taste for street politics after the turbulent 1990s. Weeks after his inauguration, Putin signed off on a raft of laws that critics have attacked as a bid to quash dissent.
Scores of activists now face jail time for taking part in a May 6 protest on the eve of Putin’s inauguration and for alleged plans to overthrow the Russian strongman with the help of foreign sponsors. Smaller rallies were held in several cities across Russia. Around 1,000-1,200 people gathered for a sanctioned march in the centre of Saint Petersburg, Putin’s hometown.
Some held irreverent slogans like “Putin’s gang is mafia” and others chanted “Virgin Mary, Drive Putin out”, a line from a song by punk band Pussy Riot whose two members are serving two-year jail terms for an anti-Putin performance in a church.
Sixty people held a 40-minute march in Tomsk in western Siberia despite temperatures of minus 35 degrees C, a representative of the Solidarnost (Solidarity) movement, Ksenia Fadeyeva, told AFP.
In a separate event, Navalny’s supporters established a new political party dubbed The Popular Alliance that would represent the interests of middle-class urbanities, the backbone of the anti-Putin protests.