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Police beat anti-Putin protesters in Russia

A riot police officer threatens a demonstrator with a baton during a protest in St Petersburg
A riot police officer threatens a demonstrator with a baton during a Sunday protest in St Petersburg, Russia. Russian riot police attacked anti-Kremlin demonstrators with batons in the tourist heart of the city a day after authorities snuffed out a similar protest in Moscow. Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Riot police beat and arrested dozens of anti-Kremlin demonstrators Sunday on a second day of protests that tested the weak opposition’s ability to challenge widely popular President Vladimir Putin.

As in Moscow a day earlier, only a few thousand people turned out in St. Petersburg to criticize the government. Opposition leaders called that a heartening response in the face of the huge police forces massed against both rallies.

Putin’s foes said the harsh handling of demonstrators, who included many elderly people, would fuel a growing sense that the leader is strangling democracy ahead of parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote next spring.

Putin, CEO of RussiaBut the opposition is in severe straits. Opinion polls rate Putin as Russia’s most popular political figure by far, thanks to newfound political stability and rapid economic growth fueled by high world oil prices. That popularity has cowed mainstream politicians in parliament and allowed Putin to strengthen the Kremlin’s powers.

His government controls the main television news, allowing his critics few appearances on the prime source of information in the sprawling country. The Rossiya channel on Sunday showed only brief footage of the Moscow protest — after opening with a report on Putin, a judo black belt, attending a martial arts match.

Opposition leaders said they were determined to push ahead. Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion who has become the most prominent figure in opposition factions loosely allied in the Other Russia coalition, called it “truly amazing” that 2,000 protesters would turn out in Moscow to face 9,000 police and interior ministry troops.

“It shows that the apathy in Russian society is gradually being replaced by very active, vocal protest,” he told The Associated Press.

Heavy-handed crackdownWhile television didn’t show much of the confrontations, many ordinary Russians who witnessed the events appeared dismayed by the harsh police crackdown. As an elderly woman comforted a bleeding youth lying on the ground Sunday, a passer-by remarked bitterly, “So this is what they call democracy.”

St. Petersburg authorities gave permission for the protest rally, but kept it under tight control. Helmeted riot police ringed the square, a helicopter hovered noisily overhead and hundreds of police reinforcements waited in trucks and buses lining nearby streets.

After the 90-minute rally, police clashed with groups of demonstrators making their way to a nearby subway station.

They first attacked a group including Sergei Gulyayev, an independent-minded former member of the city council, beating him and several others severely. Sporadic clashes continued for about an hour, with police charging groups of people young and old and clubbing those in their way.

Clashes' spark unclearIt was not clear what provoked the clashes. The opposition initially had called for a march after the rally to the city government headquarters, but authorities banned that action.

Several of the rally’s organizers were detained, at least one of them before the event started. Police said some 120 people were taken into custody.

Eduard Limonov, head of the banned National Bolshevik Party and widely known for his novels and provocative sense of political theater, was among those arrested, said his local party chief, Andrei Dmitriyev, who said he was beaten himself and detained for a few hours.

Olga Kunosova, the local head of Kasparov’s United Civil Front, said police grabbed her as she left her home to go to the rally. She and Dmitriyev both said they were released after paying fines.

Police in Moscow had arrested about 170 people at Saturday’s demonstration, including Kasparov, who was released about 11 hours later after paying a $38 fine.

Some rage at authority
Opposition leaders claimed Putin’s government was hurting itself with the harsh police tactics, saying such actions will feed distrust of the authorities.

That was true for Lyutsiya Savchenko-Lvovskaya, 72, who joined the demonstration in St. Petersburg to protest her low pension and went away angrier.

“It was terrible to see what (riot police) were doing to these peaceful people who came to the meeting to express their disagreement with the actions of authorities,” she said. “They were made to beat people of their mothers’ age, those who came to defend their future.”

Older people were substantial contingents at both demonstrations, many of them upset at having to live on tiny pensions as prices soar in the economic boom.

Some of the elderly protesters have used the respect that Russians accord the aged to make bold gestures. On Sunday, several elderly women confronted police and urged them not to use violence.