Police halt anti-Putin march

Opposition leaders, including Kasparov, arrested in Moscow

November 25, 2007|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,Chicago Tribune

MOSCOW -- Riot police broke up a march against President Vladimir V. Putin in the Russian capital yesterday and arrested former chess champion Garry Kasparov and several other opposition leaders, a clampdown on pro-democracy protesters a week before Russia's pivotal parliamentary election.

Police armed with truncheons moved in on marchers as they tried to make their way toward the Central Election Commission building, where they had planned to submit a petition questioning authorities' adherence to democratic principles before legislative elections Dec. 2.

The march followed an authorized rally held by Kasparov and fellow opposition activists in downtown Moscow, attended by about 2,000 Russians. While demonstrators did not have city permission to march to the election commission building, they avoided provoking a confrontation with police.

As demonstrators approached a line of riot police on Myasnitskaya Street, police advanced on the crowd.

"Once more they have demonstrated that the only language they can use with their own people is the language of violence, truncheons and riot police," Kasparov said as bodyguards hurriedly ushered him away from an oncoming row of police.

Moments later, riot police swarmed around Kasparov and shoved him into a waiting police bus. As the bus drove off, Kasparov looked out the back window, smiled and shook his fist.

Yesterday evening, a Moscow court sentenced Kasparov to five days in jail on charges of organizing an illegal march and resisting arrest. Opposition leaders planned another march for today in St. Petersburg.

Other than the Communist Party, opposition parties stand little chance of winning any seats in the Duma, Russia's lower chamber of parliament, when Russians head to the polls. Russia's ruling party, United Russia, will likely dominate the election now that Putin, whose popularity ratings hover above 80 percent, has agreed to head the party's ticket.

In recent weeks, pro-democracy politicians and activists have accused authorities of ratcheting up pressure on the opposition movement, citing raids on campaign offices and seizure of campaign literature. Opposition figures have been virtually ignored by Russia's state-controlled newscasts.

Marginalization of the opposition has prompted Kasparov and other opposition leaders to ask Russians to protest the election's fairness by submitting ballots with lines drawn through them.

Despite the opposition's weakened stature, the Kremlin has behaved as if its detractors pose a substantial threat. At a United Russia-organized rally in Moscow last week, Putin warned that his political opponents have been turning to Western governments for financial help to foment an uprising not unlike the revolutions that brought pro-West leaders in Ukraine and Georgia into power.

"Now they're going to take to the streets," Putin said. "They have learned from Western experts and have received training in neighboring countries. And now they're going to stage provocations here."

Along with Kasparov, opposition leaders arrested during yesterday's march included left-wing activist Eduard Limonov, human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, and Maria Gaidar, daughter of Yegor Gaidar, a prime minister under Boris N. Yeltsin. In all, about 20 people were arrested, the news agency Itar-Tass reported.

Moscow city officials defended their handling of the march, saying that protest organizers overstepped their bounds by urging demonstrators to march.

Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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