Kremlin Says Riot Police Overreacted

Riot police detain anti-Kremlin demonstrators after a rally Sunday in St. Petersburg. Some protesters were beaten as they tried to march to government buildings, in a second day of clashes in Russia. On Saturday, police broke up an opposition demonstration and arrested nearly 200 protesters in Moscow.
Riot police detain anti-Kremlin demonstrators after a rally Sunday in St. Petersburg. Some protesters were beaten as they tried to march to government buildings, in a second day of clashes in Russia. On Saturday, police broke up an opposition demonstration and arrested nearly 200 protesters in Moscow. (By Dmitry Lovetsky -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

MOSCOW, April 17 -- A Kremlin spokesman said Tuesday that the beating of demonstrators at opposition rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the weekend was an "overreaction" by riot police who were attempting to ensure "law and order on the streets."

The statement by Dmitry Peskov, on the Russia Today television station, followed strong international criticism of the police. Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said the police tactics were unacceptable, while the United States said the policing was "heavy-handed."

Peskov's statement was a rare admission of fault by the Russian government, which has largely defended the violent dispersal of demonstrators. Officials have charged that the organizers, led by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, deliberately chose not to rally at an approved location in order to spark street clashes.

Kasparov was arrested as he made his way to the demonstration Saturday on Moscow's Pushkin Square. He was released after a court appearance during which he was fined the equivalent of about $39. The FSB, Russia's internal security agency, later said it was investigating Kasparov because of an interview he gave to the Russian radio station Echo Moskvy. Officials said he could be charged with inciting extremism for calling on people to join the march.

Peskov expressed frustration at the amount of coverage the marches received in the foreign news media, noting that Kasparov and his allies enjoy little support in Russia.

"Everybody accepts these actions were quite limited" in number of participants, he said. "But of course, the very fact of these actions draws extreme attention from foreign media. And in the foreign media, a certain exaggeration took place, really."

The state-controlled television networks ignored the marches except to characterize them as the work of radicals who are probably financed from abroad. That is a theme that is gaining greater currency here as Russians who support the Kremlin charge that the United States, in particular, is bent on fomenting the kind of street revolutions that toppled governments in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia.

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the demise of communist rule, was the latest figure to articulate that position.

Speaking Tuesday at a seminar in Moscow, he said: "Previously, the CIA would channel money to opposition forces in the countries picked by the State Department. Now opposition forces are being financed through a system of various institutions and funds. This probably explains why such organizations have been mushrooming in this country."

The United States says that it provides only modest financing to strengthen what it describes as nonpartisan grass-roots organizations in Russia involved in building democratic institutions.

President Vladimir Putin has said repeatedly that he will not tolerate foreign funding of political activity here. Last year's tightening of laws governing nongovernmental organizations was intended to prevent foreign interference in Russia's internal political affairs, he has said.

Russian officials bristle at what they regard as unfair criticism from abroad, most recently a State Department report that addressed the Kremlin's centralization of power, intolerance of dissent and curbs on the media.

Gorbachev also said Tuesday that he was concerned about press freedom. "Every quarter, a new television channel passes over to state ownership, which looks like nationalization," he said. "We cannot get exhaustive information that would keep citizens informed and allow them to judge."

Gorbachev is a minority shareholder in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a crusading publication that regularly criticizes the government. Its most prominent journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was assassinated last year. The killing remains unresolved.

Gorbachev said that whatever flaws exist in the country are issues to be resolved by Russians, not outsiders. He has been generally admiring of the stability and increasing prosperity that Putin has overseen during the last seven years, while expressing some concern about an increasing lack of political pluralism.

"A sovereign state cannot live using patterns imposed on it," he said. "We must assume a clear-cut position: Democratic processes must grow on the national soil. Only this way will they be effective and influence the situation in the country."

But Kasparov and others say it is the lack of any major forum for open debate that is driving them onto the streets. And the overwhelming police response, they say, is further proof that the Kremlin won't tolerate effective opposition as it prepares for parliamentary and presidential elections over the next year.

Former Russian prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, an ally of Kasparov, said the group would not stand down. "Of course, new 'marches of the discontented' will follow as a form of protest," he said Monday on Echo Moskvy radio. "The authorities themselves are provoking this standoff. We witness the ultimate suppression of political freedom . . . it looks like they are telling us, 'Get down on your knees, cringe and do what we tell you to do.' "


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