Russia’s Anti-Putin Activists Look to Maintain Protest

Small groups of opposition activists remained on the streets of downtown Moscow on Thursday morning after four days of anti-Putin protests that began with pitched battles between police and demonstrators and also saw the jailing of two of the movement’s figureheads.

“The continuous protest on the streets of Moscow has been going on since 10 a.m. on May 7,” protest organizers wrote on their Facebook page as dozens of anti-Putin activists mingled at a square near the center of the Russian capital.

Police, who have detained around 1,000 protesters since May 6, have not moved to break up the gathering, which is taking place on the first working day after three days of public holidays to mark the capitulation of Nazi Germany in World War Two.

Over 400 people were detained as a Moscow protest rally turned violent on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s May 7 presidential inauguration. Some thirty police officers and an unconfirmed number of demonstrators were also injured in the most serious violence since the start of the previously largely peaceful protests against Putin last winter. “Protesters should have had their livers smeared on the sidewalk for injuring riot police,” said Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

Former KGB officer Putin, 59, returns to the presidency after being forced to step down by the constitution in 2008. He shifted to the post of prime minister and installed his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in the Kremlin, but remained by far Russia’s most powerful politician. His opponents accuse him of corruption and a crackdown on political freedoms. Putin’s landslide election victory was marred by allegations of poll fraud and the vote was widely criticized by international observers.

And demonstrations resumed as Putin was sworn in for a third term at a glittering State Kremlin Palace ceremony, as police who had earlier locked down his motorcade’s route pursued hundreds of activists through downtown Moscow’s boulevards and squares. Opposition figures claimed arbitrary arrests and the protests took on an increasingly surreal aspect as hundreds of activists were frequently detained, charged and released, only to be picked up again by security forces on the lookout for anyone wearing a white ribbon, the symbol of the protest movement.

Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said he was arrested and briefly detained as police raided a popular café a short distance from the route taken by Putin’s motorcade as it sped to the Kremlin.

“Remember, the boulevards are all we have,” wrote blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny in a Twitter post on May 7 as he urged anti-Putin opponents to gather for a “People’s Promenade” at a series of Moscow landmarks.

But police moved in to break up what they called “unsanctioned rallies,” arresting – again – both Navalny and Left Front movement leader Sergei Udaltsov on May 8.

Russian socialite Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of Putin’s late mentor, St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, was also among the some 600 people detained on May 7-8.

“I thought I’d get a VIP police truck,” joked Sobchak as she was driven away with other protesters on May 8. She was later released.

But both Navalny and Udaltsov were jailed for 15 days on Wednesday for disobeying police orders. Navalny was questioned by police on Thursday morning in connection with the May 6 riots.

Protesters then used the cover of an approved May 9 Victory Day demonstration by the Communist Party to march down Moscow’s main Tverskaya Street toward the Kremlin.

“Putin we are coming!” chanted several hundred protesters, as they embedded themselves in the 4,500-strong Communist Party rally.

After the march ended, around a hundred peaceful activists then moved on to the area around Red Square, where police appeared to detain at least one person for singing World War Two-era songs at a statue of Soviet war hero Marshal Georgy Zhukov.

“Are these songs to be judged extremist now?” activist leader Vadim Dergachyov asked police who had warned him and other activists that their actions were illegal, ordering them to “disperse immediately.” “Where to? Where to?” activists responded in chorus, before breaking into a chant of “We are just strolling here!”

A number of prominent cultural figures, including bestselling author and political activist Boris Akunin, plan to take to the streets for a “Test Stroll” on May 13.

“The aim of our experiment is to determine – can Muscovites walk freely around their own city or do they need a special pass,” Akunin wrote in his blog on Wednesday.

And Udaltsov proposed on Thursday holding a new march on June 12, the Russia Day public holiday.

“My arrest is revenge by the authorities who are panicking and don’t know how to deal with the increase in protests,” he wrote in message posted on Twitter by his lawyer. “I also urge the continuation of People’s Promenade on the streets of Moscow and other cities.”

But veteran liberal politician Grigory Yavlinksy criticized the protests on Thursday, saying they would achieve nothing and advising demonstrators to “create an alternative” in order to “win elections and take power.”

Yabloko party head Yavlinksy was barred from standing in the March presidential polls after election officials said a large number of signatures in support of his candidacy were fakes.

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