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Russian protesters defy Putin warning – and meet tough response

Hundreds of young Russians protested Tuesday in support of their constitutional right of free assembly, despite Prime Minister Putin's warning against unsanctioned political rallies.

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One new factor appears to be the large number of young people among the protesters, who visibly behave far more fearlessly than their Soviet-era elders -- despite the very real prospect of beatings and arrest.

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"The young generation feels the absence of freedom. More and more, they're ready to fight Putinism, which is a system characterized by the absence of law and democracy," says Mr. Nemtsov. "The numbers of youth that turned out for this protest shows that they are growing very sensitive to things they are missing."

Nemtsov, co-author of a harsh assessment of Mr. Putin's record as president (English translation here), says that police accused him of "obstructing pedestrian traffic" by handing out copies of his pamphlet on the street just before the rally began. He was released without charge after three hours of detention, as were most of the others arrested.

He says it's possible that police were more restrained than on many other recent occasions due to the presence of four members of the European Parliament at the rally, along with many foreign journalists.

One of the European lawmakers, Dutch Socialist Thijs Berman, told journalists that he was shocked by the massive police deployment on Triumph Square and the rough tactics against peaceful protesters. "This is an amazing way of dealing with democracy, shocking," he said.

Kremlin power is not likely to be shaken anytime soon by demonstrations like this, though organizers insist they will continue holding them on the highly symbolic 31st day of each month.

And though numbers of protesters remain small, protest leaders are not ordinary rabble-rousers but mostly highly educated and successful people, such as chess champion Garry Kasparov, or former regional governor and deputy prime minister Nemtsov.

"There is a certain category of people who are very capable, talented, and active, but are unable to find any place in the Putin system of 'managed democracy,'" says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant newspaper. "They don't want to be controlled, so the system has no place for them. They are faced with the choice of leaving public life altogether – and some have – or taking action. The logic that Kasparov and Nemtsov are following, by taking to the streets like this, is to try to find the tipping point in the Russian system of power."

That may help to explain the massive – and, to Western eyes, utterly disproportionate – police crackdown on the "31" rallies which continued, if a bit more mildly than previously, on Tuesday night.

"The Kremlin is afraid of us, there's no doubt about that," says Nemtsov.

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