Russia protest: Hundreds held


Summary

In the second day of protests, about 120 people were detained, city police told ITAR-TASS news agency, following the protest by The Other Russia, an opposition coalition that accuses Putin of dismantling democracy.

Some 2,000 demonstrators calling for free elections when Putin steps down next year chanted "revolution!" and "freedom!" as they were encircled by at least 1,500 members of the security forces, including hundreds of black-helmeted paramilitary police.

As the rally dispersed, police beat and detained anyone attempting to escape their cordon.

A middle-aged woman was left with a bloody nose. Police rushed to kick a man as he lay on the ground after falling from a fence he had tried to climb to escape the cordon.

"Shame!" demonstrators chanted as police forced 10 protesters aboard a bus.

One of the leaders of The Other Russia, radical leftist Eduard Limonov, was arrested shortly after when riot police kicked in the door to the apartment where he was staying, but was released on Sunday evening, his spokesman Alexander Averin told AFP.

He said Limonov had been accused of organising an illegal demonstration and of not obeying police, and had been ordered to attend a hearing at a Saint Petersburg court on April 26. He faces up to 15 days behind bars.

The clashes in Saint Petersburg followed a violent crackdown on a similar rally by The Other Russia in Moscow on Saturday. At least 200 people were arrested there, including another of the coalition's leaders, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who was released hours later.

The US-based Human Rights Watch condemned the police action as "the latest example of growing government hostility toward peaceful dissent in Russia."

Asked about the events during a television interview, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said Russia's control over the news media in the country was "rather worrying". He also spoke of a "strong resurgence" of Russian nationalism that carries "an authoritarian risk".

Tensions are rising ahead of the March 2008 presidential election to replace Putin, who is constitutionally required to step down at the end of his second term.

Putin, who has overseen rapid economic growth in Russia, is popular and whomever he endorses is expected to take over the Kremlin.

The disparate groups in The Other Russia coalition, ranging from pro-Western liberals like Kasparov to radical leftists, say they have the authorities rattled.

"The last two days showed that the Putin regime doesn't pay attention any more to legalities and relies on brute force," Kasparov told CNN television.

"My prediction is that by the end of this year Russia will sink into political turmoil."

"The authorities are scared of the people," said Viktor Petrovich, 58, at the Saint Petersburg rally. "They feel unsafe and that's why they deploy so many police."

Limonov, leader of anti-Putin youth group the National Bolsheviks, told protesters that the "authorities have declared war on the people".

"We demand free elections to parliament, we demand free elections to the presidency — without any successors. Down with autocracy!" he said at the rally.

Outspoken political debate is rare in Russia and criticism of Putin is almost never heard.

The state controls all television and nearly all radio, while Kremlin supporters constitute a large majority in parliament.

The Other Russia has never been able to bring more than 5,000 people onto the streets, but the weekend's drama in Moscow and Saint Petersburg appeared to underline the authorities' impatience with such brazen opposition.

In Moscow, 9,000 riot police and soldiers had been deployed Saturday to prevent less than 2,000 activists marching peacefully to a central square in the capital.

In Saint Petersburg, arrests began hours before the protest even started, including of two organisers for The Other Russia.

Private transport was banned from adjacent streets, a helicopter circled overhead and mobile phone connections were temporarily unavailable.


In the second day of protests, about 120 people were detained, city police told ITAR-TASS news agency, following the protest by The Other Russia, an opposition coalition that accuses Putin of dismantling democracy.

Some 2,000 demonstrators calling for free elections when Putin steps down next year chanted "revolution!" and "freedom!" as they were encircled by at least 1,500 members of the security forces, including hundreds of black-helmeted paramilitary police.

As the rally dispersed, police beat and detained anyone attempting to escape their cordon.

A middle-aged woman was left with a bloody nose. Police rushed to kick a man as he lay on the ground after falling from a fence he had tried to climb to escape the cordon.

"Shame!" demonstrators chanted as police forced 10 protesters aboard a bus.

One of the leaders of The Other Russia, radical leftist Eduard Limonov, was arrested shortly after when riot police kicked in the door to the apartment where he was staying, but was released on Sunday evening, his spokesman Alexander Averin told AFP.

He said Limonov had been accused of organising an illegal demonstration and of not obeying police, and had been ordered to attend a hearing at a Saint Petersburg court on April 26. He faces up to 15 days behind bars.

The clashes in Saint Petersburg followed a violent crackdown on a similar rally by The Other Russia in Moscow on Saturday. At least 200 people were arrested there, including another of the coalition's leaders, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who was released hours later.

The US-based Human Rights Watch condemned the police action as "the latest example of growing government hostility toward peaceful dissent in Russia."

Asked about the events during a television interview, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said Russia's control over the news media in the country was "rather worrying". He also spoke of a "strong resurgence" of Russian nationalism that carries "an authoritarian risk".

Tensions are rising ahead of the March 2008 presidential election to replace Putin, who is constitutionally required to step down at the end of his second term.

Putin, who has overseen rapid economic growth in Russia, is popular and whomever he endorses is expected to take over the Kremlin.

The disparate groups in The Other Russia coalition, ranging from pro-Western liberals like Kasparov to radical leftists, say they have the authorities rattled.

"The last two days showed that the Putin regime doesn't pay attention any more to legalities and relies on brute force," Kasparov told CNN television.

"My prediction is that by the end of this year Russia will sink into political turmoil."

"The authorities are scared of the people," said Viktor Petrovich, 58, at the Saint Petersburg rally. "They feel unsafe and that's why they deploy so many police."

Limonov, leader of anti-Putin youth group the National Bolsheviks, told protesters that the "authorities have declared war on the people".

"We demand free elections to parliament, we demand free elections to the presidency — without any successors. Down with autocracy!" he said at the rally.

Outspoken political debate is rare in Russia and criticism of Putin is almost never heard.

The state controls all television and nearly all radio, while Kremlin supporters constitute a large majority in parliament.

The Other Russia has never been able to bring more than 5,000 people onto the streets, but the weekend's drama in Moscow and Saint Petersburg appeared to underline the authorities' impatience with such brazen opposition.

In Moscow, 9,000 riot police and soldiers had been deployed Saturday to prevent less than 2,000 activists marching peacefully to a central square in the capital.

In Saint Petersburg, arrests began hours before the protest even started, including of two organisers for The Other Russia.

Private transport was banned from adjacent streets, a helicopter circled overhead and mobile phone connections were temporarily unavailable.