On Sunday, thousands protested the imminent return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency. Police, standing in rows four deep in some places, beat them back with batons and dragged some people by the hair into waiting arrest vans. Reuters reports that over 400 were arrested, among them some of the main leaders of the protest movement, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov. Prosecutors are investigating whether they provoked violence, a charge that carries a sentence of up to ten years, says the Guardian.
20,000 attended the protests in Moscow according to the Guardian, while independent estimates cited in Russia’s RIA Novosti said that 50,000 to 100,00 were present. The clashes were the largest between protesters and police since Putin first won the presidential election in 1999.
Protesters included retirees, individuals with disabilities and residents of other cities. The demonstrations began peacefully; shouts of “Putin is a thief” could be heard and also “This is our city” and “Police, be with the people, not with the freaks.” Metro stations and the city center were blocked off and military vehicles stationed in city streets. Marching towards the Kremlin, protesters threw flares and glass and plastic bottles at riot police armed with helmets, shields, batons and peppar spray. According to Reuters, the police “waded into the crowd in small groups with arms locked, picking out people and hauling them away, then pushed forward in lines to hem protesters in and disperse them.” Notes the Guardian:
After riot police dispersed protesters, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Dozhd, a Russian television channel: “From my point of view, the police acted softly. I’d rather they behave more harshly.” An interior ministry spokesman told Interfax that police behaved “professionally” and “adequately.”
Protests first broke out in December after outrage at fraud in parliamentary elections. Putin’s United Russia party was victorious; activists countered with photos of ballot boxes being stuffed. Angry at the possibility — now more and more a reality — of Putin remaining in the presidency for perhaps 12 more years, protesters held a rally in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. 100,000 demonstrated at other protests,with at least 120,000 attending a February 4 march in subzero temperatures. Some 20,000 were present at a March rally after Putin’s reelection, demanding his resignation.
Putin, the former KGB spy, is to start his third six-year term as president on Monday with what Reuters describes as a “lavish ceremony inside the Kremlin at which the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, will bless him.” After he had served a maximum of consecutive six-year terms as president from 2000 – 2008, Putin’s ally, Dmitry Medvedev, entered the Kremlin and Putin became Prime Minister. Putin won the presidential election on March 4th with 64 percent of the vote; the opposition has maintained that he was illegally elected and that widespread fraud brought him back to power. Medvedev is to serve as Prime Minister: He and Putin are, in effect, simply switching positions.
Putin, says the Guardian, has “continued to anger many by teasing the protest movement,” referring to their symbol, a white ribbon, as a condom. He is likely to begin “tightening screws,” by banning rallies in downtown Moscow says Alexei Makarkin of the Center of Political Technologies think-tank in RIA Novosti. Describing the situation between Putin and the public as in a “deadlock,” Makarkin said that “the authorities don’t know how to do dialogue and don’t like it.”
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