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Russia arrests New Year’s protesters

Police prevented protesters organized by a radical leftist leader from gathering in central Moscow on New Year’s Eve, as a year that brought dramatic and unexpected change to Russia drew to a close.

About 200 people converged on Triumfalnaya Square in the early evening darkness, perhaps half of them journalists, for a rally organized by Eduard Limonov in support of freedom of assembly.

Limonov, founder of the National Bolshevik Party, was detained on the street before he even got to the square, and police said about 60 protesters in all were arrested because the gathering did not have a permit. They said, however, that all would be released before the stroke of midnight.

The protest differed from two rallies earlier in the month, when tens of thousands gathered in Moscow and throughout the country to demand fair elections. Saturday’s protest — called Strategy 31 after the article of the constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly — has been going on for two years, held on the 31st of every month with that many days.

A year ago, on Dec. 31, 2010, Limonov was arrested as he left his apartment, and a former deputy prime minister named Boris Nemtsov was arrested as he left the Triumfalnaya rally and sentenced to 15 days in jail. Nemtsov, who was at the forefront of the huge protests on Dec. 10 and Dec. 24, was not seen at the Saturday night rally.

New Year’s Eve is the biggest holiday of the year in Russia, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took the opportunity to deliver a celebratory message, replete with his trademark tough-guy coarseness.

He sent good wishes to all the citizens of Russia, including those along the entire political spectrum, but phrased it in Russian with sexual innuendo that lent his words a derogatory note, referring to “leftist forces and those situated on the right, below, above, however you like.” He also shrugged off the protests as so much political noise and nothing unusual.

“Of course, we are in the middle of a political cycle — the parliamentary elections have finished and the presidential elections are going to start,” Putin said. “In such times, politicians always exploit the feelings of citizens, everything gets shaken around a bit, boils up. But this is the unavoidable price of democracy.”

A mile and a half from Triumfalnaya Square, even more police were gathered — these lined up around Red Square to keep order among the many thousands of revelers who would gather by midnight, champagne and vodka bottles in hand.

They were preparing to greet a new year in which the certainties of the last decade — the years of Putin’s rule as president and prime minister — no longer hold sway. Ordinary citizens have joined together in a political awakening. But no one knows what will come of it.

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