Moscow – Russian opposition leaders accused Vladimir Putin of changing tactics to crack down on dissent after riot police detained hundreds of protesters challenging the legitimacy of his presidential election victory.
Black-helmeted police hauled away more than 500 people, including several opposition leaders, who attended unsanctioned rallies in Moscow and St Petersburg on Monday or refused to disperse at the end of a rally that had been permitted.
Many including Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has become a leading light of the protest movement, were quickly released but some faced the prospect of receiving short jail sentences on Tuesday.
After three months of protests that passed off peacefully, the police intervention sent a clear signal that Putin is losing patience with the opposition and will crack down if protesters step out of line.
But the restraint shown by most police, even as they bundled protesters into vans, also suggested that Putin is determined not to give his critics the chance to depict him as a dictator ready to suppress any challenge to his authority.
“The use of force and detention of opposition politicians could have been avoided.
“It was a peaceful rally. I am outraged by the use of force against people who came to express their views.
“Today’s events at Pushkin Square broke the tradition of the recent peaceful protest rallies in the country,” defeated presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov said in a Twitter message late on Monday.
Ksenia Sobchak, a television host who has fallen out with Putin, her late father’s protege, said: “I was so hoping the regime would show generosity after winning.”
Witnesses said that although some protesters were hurt, and one said her arm had been broken, officers seemed intent on avoiding casualties at the main protest on Moscow’s Pushkin Square, often the scene of Soviet-era dissident protests.
But reporters saw police using tougher tactics against a group which tried to protest at Lubyanka Square, in front of the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
The police had told protesters not to attend those rallies which had not been approved by the authorities and prosecutors warned some opposition leaders not to step out of line.
The pattern appears clear: Putin will allow a few isolated protests, the place and time of which is agreed with the authorities, as a safety valve for disillusionment with his 12-year domination of Russia among mainly urban demonstrators.
He could also offer some conciliatory gestures to appease the opposition and in one such move, the Kremlin has ordered a review of 32 criminal cases including the jailing of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the refusal to register a liberal opposition group which has been barred from elections.
But Putin, a former KGB spy, will do his utmost to prevent what he regards as more radical protesters undermining his return to the Kremlin for a third term as president after four years as prime minister. Dissent will be dealt with forcefully.
“We saw fear in the eyes of the dictator. We saw weakness. We saw a man who is unsure of himself.
“Has war begun? Why have they brought troops into the centre of our capital? Why the riot police? Who does he want to wage war with? Who is he protecting himself against? ,” Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader, told the rally at Pushkin Square after Putin shed a tear in his victory speech on Sunday.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, said on Twitter that the arrests were troubling and freedom of assembly and speech were universal values. (Reuters/NAN)