By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 16, 2007
MOSCOW, April 15 -- Riot police beat anti-Kremlin demonstrators who attempted to march to government buildings in St. Petersburg on Sunday after an officially permitted protest rally on the edge of the city center, in a second day of clashes in Russia.
Dozens of people were arrested before and during the rally, but most were hauled away as demonstrators demanded a right to march after the event. Riot police blocking the route waded into the crowd and beat demonstrators, and some participants tossed bottles and stones at police lines.
The violence followed the arrest of nearly 200 people in Moscow on Saturday, when an anti-government coalition led by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov was prevented from assembling in Pushkin Square. Kasparov was arrested but released late Saturday after he was fined $39 for participating in an unsanctioned rally. He did not travel to St. Petersburg, according to a spokesman for the activist.
In St. Petersburg, police detained an organizer of Sunday's march as she left her home to attend the rally. Police said Olga Kurnosova, the head of Kasparov's organization in St. Petersburg, was arrested for a traffic violation, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
Some of the 3,000 protesters who attended the rally were arrested for vocally denouncing President Vladimir Putin and his administration, police said.
"Several participants in the rally have been arrested for chanting anti-constitutional and anti-government slogans and using foul language," a police spokesman told Interfax. "Leaflets and pamphlets urging readers to organize an unauthorized march were seized from several other demonstrators. They were detained and taken to a police station."
The rally was organized by the Other Russia, an anti-Kremlin coalition whose other demonstrations have been violently suppressed in three cities, including St. Petersburg, in recent weeks.
The Other Russia, which includes liberals, nationalists and communists, is united by a disdain for Putin's rule. Activists have vowed to intensify street protests in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections over the next 12 months.
Kasparov and other dissidents say the Kremlin's stranglehold over the broadcast media and the lack of open political debate and competition have forced them to demonstrate.
Russian authorities, however, appear determined to prevent the kind of public marches that are commonplace in Western countries to protest the war in Iraq, for example, or to demonstrate for any number of other causes. While such marches in Washington or London receive major coverage from Russian television, anti-Kremlin protests here are blacked out.
When anti-Kremlin activists receive any television coverage, they are condemned as extremist hooligans or the puppets of foreign interests -- either the exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, the United States, or both.
Last week, Berezovsky, a reviled figure here, said he was plotting a revolution to topple Putin. But the organizers of the marches this weekend have distanced themselves from Berezovsky, who is political poison for anyone associated with him.
"This is our city and this is our rally," said Sergei Gulyayev, one of the organizers of the St. Petersburg march. "We do not support Boris Berezovsky's methods. We reject allegations that our rally has been sponsored by him." Gulyayev was later arrested.
Putin enjoys overwhelming support in Russia, while the Other Russia and other opposition groups are marginal forces. But the president's opponents say the show of force assembled for every opposition gathering is a measure of the Kremlin's nervousness about its strength.
"It is no longer a country . . . where the government tries to pretend it is playing by the letter and spirit of the law," Kasparov said late Saturday.
"We now stand somewhere between Belarus and Zimbabwe," he said, referring to countries in Eastern Europe and Africa with dictatorial governments.