MOSCOW – The Russian opposition Tuesday defiantly vowed to wage a sustained campaign of protests after police detained hundreds in rallies against Vladimir Putin’s crushing victory in presidential polls.
Protest leaders were holding talks with the Moscow authorities to agree a venue for a mass protest on Saturday they hope to use for keeping pressure on on Putin ahead of his return to the Kremlin for at least six more years.
The tense demonstration on the night after Sunday’s election descended into chaos and violence when police moved in the late hours to roughly arrest a hard core who had tried to stage a sit-in protest on a central Moscow square.
Police said they arrested 620 people there and at a similar event in Saint Petersburg. Those detained in the capital included the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny — the nascent movement’s charismatic but divisive figurehead.
All were released by Tuesday, police said, but several will now be called before courts for hearings that could see them given 15-day jail terms.
“Tens of thousands will be coming out on the streets of Moscow and other cities and refusing to leave,” Navalny told reporters after spending most of Monday night in detention. “We will keep doing this until our demands are met.”
The spectre of unrest has overshadowed what was meant to be Putin’s triumphant return to a post he held with nearly no dissent from 2000 to 2008 before his four-year stint as prime minister.
The ex-KGB spy is due to be sworn in at the Kremlin on May 7.
The opposition has raised alarm over the police force being used for the first time since the rallies had turned into the first sustained post-Soviet protest movement three months ago.
US Ambassador Michael McFaul also called the scenes “troubling” on his Twitter account.
But Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told ITAR-TASS that police displayed the “highest professionalism” and behaved in a “legitimate and effective manner” at the high-profile Moscow event.
And the Russian foreign ministry argued that Moscow’s police were “many times more humane than what we witnessed with the dispersal of the Occupy Wall Street protests (in New York) and the tent cities in Europe.”
Putin won Sunday’s election with 63.6 percent of the vote and will serve for a six-year term and if re-elected could be extended through 2024 — a stretch making him Moscow’s longest-serving ruler since Stalin.
But European monitors have raised concerns and the opposition — its leaders excluded from both the polls and most access to state media — have vowed to make protests a permanent feature of the Russian strongman’s new presidency.
The next big event in Moscow is set for Saturday when organisers hope to lead tens of thousands on a march along the central Novy Arbat Avenue. The city has offered a more remote location and no final venue has yet been agreed.
“The awakening of society,” the Vedomosti daily said in an editorial about the difficulties Putin faces on his Kremlin comeback.
“The possible return of Putin for two more terms has brought on fears of stagnation and despair,” it said.
But some have expressed fears that the rallies may be losing the ironic edge that kept them popular with crowds of all ages and were now turning more urgent and volatile as the reality of Putin’s new term sets in.
Monday’s event in Moscow featured the first speaking appearance by tycoon and third-place election candidate Mikhail Prokhorov — an independent who has vowed to build his own party after winning almost 8.0 percent of the vote.
Some analyst believe the Kremlin privately backs Prokhorov in hopes that he can win over some of the movement’s supporters and thus calm the tensions on the streets.
The tycoon has repeatedly called himself an “alternative” to Putin and did not view himself as an outright member of the opposition.
He defended democratic freedoms at the rally and later urged the police to exercise more restraint.
“I am certain that the use of force and detention of opposition politicians could have been avoided,” Prokhorov wrote on his Twitter.