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On eve of Putin's inauguration, protest and reaction bigger than expected (+video)

Russian police cracked down with tear gas and hundreds of arrests after anti-Putin protesters in Moscow tried to cross a barricaded bridge.

By Correspondent / May 6, 2012

Riot police and protesters clash on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration.

Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters

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Moscow

Thousands of people marched through central Moscow Sunday, on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration for an unprecedented third term as Russia's president, many chanting angry slogans such as "Putin out!" and "Putin is Russia's shame!"

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Violent protests in Moscow Sunday, ahead of Vladimir Putin inauguration.

Unlike the mostly peaceful and even good-natured mass rallies of recent months Sunday's march ended in violence and hundreds of arrests as heavily-armored, tear gas-firing riot police moved in on a contingent of protesters who were attempting to cross a bridge that police had barricaded. The independent Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvi reported that police arrested 400 people. 

Police put the number of protesters at 8,000, but organizers claimed that more than 20,000 people came out to march down a major Moscow avenue in the warm spring sunshine to Bolotnaya Square, within sight of the Kremlin, where they were to hear a rock concert and speeches from key opposition leaders.

The crowd was far larger than either organizers or police had anticipated; last week authorities granted a permit for just 5,000 participants. Many had predicted that the middle class pro-democracy movement would wane following Mr. Putin's decisive electoral victory in March, and fractious opposition leaders had already begun blaming one another for the decline in public support.

But anti-Putin Muscovites, organizing themselves through Facebook and the Russian-language VKontakte rather than through opposition parties and groups, appear to have handed everybody another surprise by showing up in numbers that journalists on the scene agreed were closer to the 20,000 estimate.

Among those reportedly arrested following the clashes with police were key opposition leaders Sergei Udaltsov, Boris Nemtsov, and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny.

"No one expected it to end like this; the police reaction was way too harsh," says Alexei Larionov, an economist who says he hasn't attended a protest since 1991. "I got hit myself. It certainly looked like the police were under orders to be really tough. I think that had a lot to do with Putin's inauguration tomorrow. They wanted to give us a clear warning. But I don't think protests will stop because of this. This will continue."

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