Russian riot police clashed on Monday with opposition protesters who tried to hold an unauthorised rally in Moscow against the election of President Vladimir Putin's protege, Dmitry Medvedev. More than 300 riot police, sometimes using batons, detained scores of activists and dragged protesters to police buses, Reuters reporters at the scene said. Some of the protesters lit flares spreading scarlet smoke across the square in central Moscow, screaming "your election is a farce" and "Fascists! Fascists!"
"It is my duty to come down here and express my opposition after these pre-planned and falsified elections," Yelizaveta, a protester in her 50s, told Reuters as riot police arrested people around her. "Now they are dragging us away one by one." The leaders of Russia's small and splintered liberal opposition have called a series of rallies to protest against the election of Medvedev, who official figures show won just over 70 percent of the vote. Opposition leader Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who attended a separate rally in the northern city of St Petersburg, said 250 people had been detained in Moscow. A spokesman for Moscow's police declined to comment.
Western observers have criticized Sunday's election as not fully democratic but Putin said the vote was held in strict accordance with the constitution. Independent opposition candidates were either barred from running or refused to take part in protest.
"We need to ensure that this regime is recognized as illegitimate," said Kasparov, who in December dropped his bid to run in the presidential election, saying obstruction by the authorities made it pointless. "The authorities have stopped paying any attention even to the formalities of democracy," he said, adding that the opposition would call an assembly of opposition parties before Medvedev's May 7 inauguration as president.
Police at the Moscow rally detained Nikita Belykh, leader of the small free-market Union of Right Forces party, and Lev Ponomaryov, a prominent human rights activist. "Yesterday they were shouting Heil Putin ... on Red Square to celebrate their victory," Alla Petrova, a pensioner who was wrapped up warmly against the driving snow, told Reuters. "Today they are beating innocent people. Shame on them."
In St Petersburg, about 2,000 activists chanted "Revolution, Revolution" and "Russia without Putin". The meeting had official permission, but Maxim Reznik, head of the Yabloko opposition party in St Petersburg, was detained late on Sunday, opposition worker Olga Kurnosova said. "He was accused of not obeying police orders. He called me this morning and said his coat had been torn and his forehead bruised," she told Reuters. Police confirmed the detention, saying Reznik was detained after he had attacked another man -- a charge Kurnosova denied.
Though opposition marchers were banned, Nashi's pro-Kremlin youth cult forces were free to march as they liked, as the Moscow Times reports:
Moscow authorities have repeatedly refused to authorize opposition marches on the grounds that they would snarl traffic and inconvenience people. But with the city's blessing, thousands of pro-Kremlin youths marched across central Moscow on Monday -- and created some of the worst traffic jams ever seen in the capital.
Around 5,500 young people marched from the Ukraina Hotel to the U.S. Embassy to celebrate the election of Dmitry Medvedev as president and to accuse the West of improperly meddling in domestic affairs. The marchers were bused into Moscow from around the country by Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group. While the march received generous coverage on state television, Moscow drivers were less than thrilled about the ostensible display of enthusiasm for the new president. "The policemen actually narrowed the street because they stood on the street next to the group of young people rallying on the sidewalks," said Yevgeny Krestinsky, a driver who spent 15 minutes making the short trip from the Arbat to the Garden Ring.
Traffic was paralyzed in central and east Moscow for much of the day. Motorists stuck in east Moscow called radio programs to complain that traffic police had blocked traffic to let dozens of Nashi buses into the city. Traffic police spokesman Igor Koloskov said the jams were caused by "some transportation problems ... and numerous events scheduled for today."
"These events saw some participants from other cities come to Moscow, and the traffic police tried to do their best to normalize the traffic situation," he said. When asked whether he meant the Nashi march, he said he was not authorized to name any specific events. "I mean all of the events permitted by Moscow authorities for today," he said.
The anti-Kremlin opposition tried to hold a Dissenters' March near the Chistiye Prudy metro station to protest Sunday's election, but OMON riot police dragged away dozens of people before it could start at around 5 p.m. (Story, Page 2.) Moscow authorities had refused to authorize the opposition march, just as they had rejected repeated requests to hold similar marches for the past 15 months. Many times, City Hall has said it could not permit the marches because they could worsen the city's already bad traffic problems. A City Hall spokeswoman, Natalya Panina, did not say why the Nashi march had been cleared and the opposition marches rejected. She said all marches are authorized or denied by the police. The police spokesman also did not explain why Nashi had received a green light.
The Nashi youths gathered near the Ukraina Hotel and walked together across the Novoarbatsky Bridge. While some split into large groups to head off in various directions, most veered left, crossing four lanes of traffic toward the White House and trudging uphill to the U.S. Embassy. Across from the embassy, they unsuccessfully tried to squeeze into a 50-meter-long stretch of sidewalk, spilling into the traffic-clogged Garden Ring. Police kept waving television crews and photographers out of the second lane. In the first lane, teenagers held up a huge red-and-white banner reading, "Let them teach their wives to make shchi" -- echoing President Vladimir Putin's comment at a Feb. 14 news conference that the United States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should stay out of Russia's affairs. "We want all decisions about the future of Russia to be made in Russia," said Razhab Musayev, 22, the leader of the Nashi delegation from Grozny.