Putin wields big stick as police arrest Russia's protesters

Hundreds of protesters who had gathered to express their fury at Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin were detained by riot police on Monday night in one of the biggest protests in the Russian capital for years. The opposition leader Alexei Navalny was among those arrested.

Navalny, backed by hundreds of supporters, had refused to leave Pushkin Square in central Moscow after a two-hour demonstration that had attracted about 25 000 people loudly shouting for Putin to resign.

After the crowd dispersed, about 1 000 people, including Navalny and the leftist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov, moved towards a fountain in the middle of the square and refused to leave. Riot police, wearing camouflaged clothing and black helmets, moved in to encircle them before roughly dragging them away into waiting vans in an operation that took more than an hour.

After Navalny was arrested, protesters shouting “Russia without Putin!” flooded on to Tverskaya Street, the Moscow thoroughfare that leads straight to the Kremlin.
They were chased by columns of riot police as the traffic became blocked in chaotic scenes. Later, buses packed with police and trucks with army camouflage rolled through the streets of central Moscow.

Earlier, 50 people had been detained during an unsanctioned rally of 3 000 people in St Petersburg; 50 more were held after a separate unsanctioned protest in Moscow.

Some opposition leaders had threatened an escalation in protest methods, but did not put the move to the larger crowd that had gathered earlier. Many protesters said they were ready to march on the Kremlin if opposition leaders called for it.

Speaking on stage ahead of his arrest, Navalny denied that the demonstrators would flag. “We will not get tired of coming out into the streets. We will not go away,” he said.

Extra security
Some observers believe a change in tactics of the opposition is inevitable given that the presidential election is over and activists may have difficulty sustaining regular peaceful demonstrations.

So far, the Kremlin’s response to the protest movement has been to allow people to gather as long as they complete a lengthy approvals procedure requiring negotiations with city authorities. The Kremlin’s bet, analysts believe, is that the protest movement will run out of steam.

The government had poured thousands of extra police and interior ministry troops into the capital, backed by army trucks and at least one helicopter.

Those that gathered were furious at Putin’s declared landslide victory in a vote marred by reports of fraud. The protesters told the Guardian they were unwilling to accept the longtime leader’s formal return to power and vowed to continue demands for new and free elections.

“We are ready to be surrounded, thrown into an arrest van and beaten,” said Arnold (20), who attended the protest with two teenage friends. He was adorned with badges reading “Putin go fuck yourself” written backwards.

“Who is the power here?” Navalny shouted from the stage during the protest. Thousands shouted: “We are the power here!” in a passionate refrain. Yevgenia Chirikova, another opposition leader, led the crowd in chants of “Putin is a thief!”

‘They fucked us again’
While the protests that broke out in response to the contested parliamentary vote in December brought tens of thousands of Russians together in an unexpected show of peaceful civil unity, Monday’s demonstration attracted an angrier contingent who refused to accept the presidential election result.

“They fucked us again,” read one massive placard held up by Alissa (21). She and her boyfriend had flown in from the Urals city of Orenburg to attend the protest, having bought the tickets after Putin’s militant victory speech.

“I do not agree with yesterday’s election,” she said. “We need a new government. We need changes.”

Like many others at the protest, she said she was ready to march to the walls of the Kremlin, demanding her voice be heard.

Putin’s decision to return to the presidency has led to an unprecedented movement against his rule.

For now, however, it remains largely confined to Moscow and St Petersburg, traditionally homes to the Russian elite. If Putin won 64% of votes around the country, according to the elections commission, he failed to break the 50% barrier in the capital.

Officials have shrugged off accusations of fraud and lack of competition, made by international elections observers and opposition activists alike, with elections commission chief, Vladimir Churov, calling the vote the “most honest in the world”.

‘Succession to the throne’
Protesters called for Churov’s resignation and carried signs denouncing Putin’s return. “These weren’t presidential elections—it was a succession to the throne,” read one. “It’s not just about falsifications,” said Ivan (65), an office manager. “I want our country to be democratic. I want to be led not by crooks and thieves, but by normal people.

“I want society to democratise, to allow different parties to take part in elections, to allow different people into the presidential election. I want them to stop robbing the country.”

Several demonstrators carried signs citing a Soviet-era film, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, mocking Putin’s apparent decision to cry at a victory rally on Sunday night.

The crowd was overwhelmingly young, but joined in large number by pensioners. Olga (17), who accompanied her father Fyodor, said: “There are injustices in our government and in our country. If the people who are against that unite, maybe we can change something.”

“I don’t understand how the people of our country, with peace in their souls, can elect a person who didn’t just renounce his KGB past, but on the contrary, promotes the system’s continuation,” Fyodor said.

“No one came here to fight with anyone, or to die for anyone,” he added. “Of course it’s scary. But if the worst happens, it won’t be because of us, but because of what the government does.”

Protesters denounced the idea of Putin as a “lifetime leader”. Alexey (38) said he used to support Putin until his decision to remain in power, though as prime minister, in 2008. “The government should change regularly.”

“We need to do this—of course something will change,” he said. “Pinochet also didn’t listen to his people. But when enough got together and forced him into a referendum, he left.”—

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