Russia Cracks Down - Hard - on Protesters

Article excerpt

The diverse prodemocracy coalition of "dissenters" led by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov confronted what he calls Vladimir Putin's "police state" by successfully staging officially forbidden small rallies in Russia's two largest cities last weekend.

Police easily prevailed in the street showdowns against protesters, many of them elderly, in Moscow and St. Petersburg. But the sometimes harsh overreaction by thousands of helmeted riot troopers, wearing body armor and wielding truncheons, has led Mr. Kasparov - himself hauled away by police on Moscow's central Pushkin Square Saturday and detained for several hours - to declare that he is winning the debate.

"Today, the mask came off the Putin police state," said Kasparov in a statement Sunday. "They are violating the Constitution. It's obvious the regime is nervous and unstable if this is how they react to a nonviolent march."

Kasparov's coalition, called The Other Russia, is a collection of liberals, leftists, neocommunists, and moderate nationalists who agree only that civil liberties are being snuffed out under Mr. Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule and that dramatic public action is needed to awaken society to the danger. Critics say that their tactic of holding rallies that have been banned by authorities invites trouble.

The Other Russia's application for a permit to march at Pushkin Square Saturday was rejected, though City Hall on Wednesday agreed to let the group meet at Turgenev Square.

9,000 troops arrest 170 protesters

But Kasparov and a few hundred Other Russia supporters planned to meet at Pushkin Square nevertheless.

Ahead of the march, the City Prosecutor's Office reiterated its March order for the National Bolsheviks, a core party in the Other Russia coalition, to cease its participation in rallies. The office recommended last month that the City Court label the party an extremist group, citing violation of the country's new anti- extremism laws.

On Saturday morning, the Main Interior Directorate's official representative Yevgeniy Gildeyev warned that the police would be tough on the protesters.

"It is not important for the police what action is being held and what people are demanding. The main thing for us is whether the action has been sanctioned, whether it has been allowed or banned by the authorities," he told Ehko Moskovy radio station. "In this respect, our direct duty is to suppress all the activities that will be carried out illegally. These [activities] violate the law, which we enforce."

An estimated 9,000 police and Interior troops descended on Pushkin Square Saturday, where only a few hundred The Other Russia supporters turned out for the "Dissenters' March."

Lines of troops boxed in the small group of protesters, then repeatedly charged them, beating many and dragging several away in a lock position with truncheons pulled tight against their throats.

Pro-Kremlin protesters rally nearby, unhindered

Across the square, and unhindered by the phalanxes of riot police, about 1,000 members of the pro-Kremlin "Young Guard" youth movement were holding a rally in support of Putin. …