Russian riot police arrested dozens of people on Saturday in Moscow and Saint Petersburg who tried to stage unsanctioned New Year’s Eve protests against 12 years of Vladimir Putin’s dominant rule.
The show of police force marked the first time the authorities had cracked down on members of the Russian opposition since allowing two massive rallies on December 10 and December 24.
Chants of “Russia without Putin” and “We need another Russia” rang out at both events Saturday. Reports said that 200 people had also gathered in the central city of Nizhny Novgorod but without being arrested.
AFP correspondents saw 20 people roughly rounded up by helmeted interior ministry troops who had set up an imposing cordon around Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square and a dozen more detained in Putin’s native city of Saint Petersburg.
Russia’s opposition has been mobilised by the outcome of disputed December 4 parliamentary polls in which Putin’s ruling party retained a narrow majority amid widespread allegations of fraud.
The huge rallies witnessed in Moscow earlier this month were the largest since the turbulent early years of post-Soviet rule and brought together various political forces marginalised since Putin’s rise to power in 1999.
But those detained on Saturday were mostly brought out on the street by the radical leftist leader and author Eduard Limonov — arrested on many occasions at other unsanctioned end-of-month events marking the right to freedom of assembly.
Limonov told Moscow Echo radio that he was detained again Saturday and was now being driven to a police station.
The veteran Russian human rights activist and leader of the Moscow Helsinki group Lyudmila Alexeyeva described the arrests as “shameful and stupid”.
“Our authorities have to understand that the era of breaking up meetings has come to an end,” she told the Interfax news agency.
The 59-year-old Putin now intends to return to the Kremlin after March 4 presidential elections that — according to a privately-agreed job swap — will see him hand his current premiership post to President Dmitry Medvedev.
The arrangement’s announcement in September came as Putin’s approval ratings soared not far off the highs they enjoyed throughout his 2000-2008 presidency and subsequent premiership.
But the prospects of the ex-KGB colonel returning to the Kremlin for up to two terms that could last until 2024 created public resentment that spilled over into the streets once the December 4 election results were announced.
Putin has in the past days ridiculed the opposition movement and effectively rejected their calls for direct talks that could lead to changes allowing more political forces to enter politics and run for senior seats.
He told Russians on Saturday in a televised New Year’s message that the turbulence was the “unavoidable price of democracy”.
“Of course, we are in the middle of a political cycle — the parliamentary elections have finished and the presidential elections are going to start,” Putin said in a televised message to Russians ahead of the New Year.
“In such times, politicians always exploit the feelings of citizens, everything gets shaken around a bit, boils up. But this is the unavoidable price of democracy,” Putin said.
“There is nothing unusual here,” he added.
The protest movement has not said when it will call the next mass demonstration. Some had suggested a date at the end of January while others have lobbied for a day closer to the presidential vote itself.