By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 15, 2007
MOSCOW, April 14 -- Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and at least 170 other anti-Kremlin activists were detained Saturday after hundreds of riot police sealed off Moscow's Pushkin Square and clubbed some protesters to prevent a banned opposition rally and march.
"They are seizing people everywhere, so that any group of people that looks even the least bit suspicious is immediately arrested -- not just blocked, but arrested, harshly," Kasparov said in a cellphone interview with the radio station Echo Moskvy after the arrest, his first. He waved to supporters from a police van before he was driven off.
Police later broke up a demonstration outside the police station where he was being held. Protesters shouting "Freedom for political prisoners!" were kicked and clubbed by police.
Kasparov was released late Saturday.
At the square, lines of police, including undercover officers pointing out vocal demonstrators, had quickly moved in on anyone who began to chant slogans or tried to galvanize people milling around the police cordon. Some elderly women, carrying flowers and copies of the Russian constitution, were knocked down or hauled away. A number of journalists were arrested, but officials said they were quickly released.
Kasparov is a leader of Other Russia, an opposition coalition that had called on supporters to assemble in Pushkin Square despite a decision by city officials to ban any gathering by the group at that location.
"The authorities are afraid of us, they are nervous," said former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who broke with President Vladimir Putin and is a leader of Other Russia and a potential presidential candidate. "Why can free people not walk? Why are they beaten?"
The coalition has held a series of what it calls "dissenters' marches" in Russian cities in recent weeks. All have been suppressed, sometimes violently, by masses of riot police. Another is planned for St. Petersburg on Sunday.
Kasparov and his supporters say they plan to continue stepping up their protests in the next 12 months in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections. They charge that Putin has squeezed the life out of Russian democracy and plans to stage-manage the elections to prevent a free choice.
Local authorities stressed that they did provide a permit for the group to hold a demonstration at another location -- several hundred people gathered there, and Kasyanov addressed them. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said that by seeking to stage a march where it was not permitted, members of Other Russia were looking for a confrontation with police.
"We have sanctioned a large number of events, both pro-government and pro-presidential, and also anti-government ones," Luzhkov told journalists Saturday. "We live in a free and democratic country and allow the expression of both agreement and disagreement with the government.
"Processions are a problem to us," he continued. "We have not allowed pro-presidential organizations to hold them as well and suggested that they find a large place for a rally. We act similarly with anti-government organizations who want to express their protest to the authorities."
Officials said 9,000 police and Interior Ministry troops were deployed at different locations across the city.
The authorities appear unwilling to allow opposition gatherings except at locations where crowds can be contained easily by large numbers of police. But at Pushkin Square on Saturday, as arrests were taking place, about 150 members of a pro-government youth group rallied with official permission inside the police cordon.
The Kremlin, in particular, appears haunted by the memory of street demonstrations in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine, where crowds grew exponentially and eventually toppled governments after fraudulent elections.
"The authorities want to scare the opposition," said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "There are always radical activists who will go out on the street, but this show of force was psychological pressure designed for those who want to go out but are unsure and want to be safe."
Despite the attention it receives from the authorities, Kasparov's Other Russia remains a marginal group in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population either supports Putin or is indifferent to politics.
The opposition itself is divided. Some opposition figures, including leaders of the Yabloko and Union of Right Forces parties, have distanced themselves from Other Russia because of the presence in it of radicals such as the National Bolsheviks.
At the sanctioned rally Saturday afternoon, the political satirist Viktor Shenderovich chided some of the young radicals in the crowd, telling them to ease up on the talk of revolution. The authorities, he said, have "an inferiority complex."
"Our job is to develop that complex," he said.