Riot police wielding batons beat, kicked and chased anti-Kremlin protesters through the heart of St Petersburg on Sunday, a day after Russian authorities snuffed out a similar rally in Moscow.
In the last few months police tactics against opposition marches have been to forcefully clear them off the streets after a certain period of time, a plan which has often led to the mass detention of activists, drawing criticism from the West.
Sunday’s violence began when about 500 demonstrators calling for the resignation of President Vladimir Putin moved towards a metro station after an officially-permitted protest ended.
Police wearing crash helmets and armed with full-length metal shields and rubber truncheons moved into the crowd, a mixture of people from students to old women.
Police arrested some protesters and pushed others to the ground where they kicked and hit them with their batons. Some chased individuals through the streets.
”Stop the beating,” demonstrators shouted at the police. ”Fascists. How much did Putin pay you?”
The police herded about 150 protesters into police vans, and continued to hit some of them with batons inside. The city authorities had allowed the protesters to hold a meeting, but had banned the march.
Opponents of Putin, acting under the umbrella organisation Other Russia, planned two rallies over the weekend.
Authorities banned the main rally on Saturday in Moscow and detained several hundred protesters there, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.
Kasparov said the recent heavy-handed policing showed the authorities’ contempt for democracy.
”The regime is no longer paying attention to legalities. Yesterday [Saturday] in Moscow and today in St Petersburg the Russian Constitution was suspended,” he told Reuters.
”Now we can see the true colours of Putin’s regime.”
Russian television news, which is state controlled, gave little attention to Sunday’s protest and fighting.
Other Russia brings together Kremlin opponents from across the political spectrum, from liberals to communists. They say Putin has trampled on democratic freedoms and they demand a free and fair presidential election in 2008.
Other Russia has only marginal influence as the vast majority of Russians support Putin, whose seven years in power have been marked by huge oil and commodity wealth and the return of national pride after the chaotic post-Soviet 1990s.
Sunday’s rally in St Petersburg attracted about 3 000 people. The cellphone network had been blocked and police trucks mounted with water cannon were parked in side streets.
”Freedom!” the protesters shouted. ”Putin is the enemy of the people.”
The leader of the left-wing National Bolshevik party, Eduard Limonov addressed the crowd: ”Our demand is the resignation of the government and the president and free and fair elections this year and next.”
Police later detained him at a St Petersburg apartment.
Earlier police detained dozens of protesters heading towards the rally, organisers said.
”Police detained me as soon as I left my house this morning,” rally organiser Olga Kurnosova, leader of Kasparov’s political party in St Petersburg, told Reuters by telephone from police custody.
In March riot police used batons to break up a march by Putin opponents who blocked one of St Petersburg’s main roads. – Reuters