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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.

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Dissent from 'managed democracy'

The wave of protests broke out in December, shattering Russia's facade of pro-Kremlin social harmony, and throwing up a new generation of political leaders whose roots are in civil society rather than the strictly-orchestrated political system of "managed democracy."

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The reaction of the authorities was not to crack down with police violence, as in the past, but to sponsor a raft of political reforms designed to take some of the wind out of protester's sails. They included an easing of requirements to officially register a political party, a return to direct elections for regional governors – albeit with Kremlin "filters" to prevent surprises – and possible establishment of a public TV channel independent of state control.

"In many ways these reforms are real, and they have gone some way to revitalizing politics in this country," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a long-time left-wing activist and head of the independent Institute for Globalization and Social Movement Studies in Moscow.

IN PICTURES: Putin on a show

Another effect of the protests was to force Putin to adopt a populist economic program, including billions of dollars worth of new social benefits and an extremely expensive pledge to rebuild and reequip Russia's armed forces
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"Putin started backing off his promises immediately after the elections," says Mr. Kagarlitsky. "Now the government says it will cut social spending, raise the pension age, and proceed with an educational reform that's actually going to turn schools into commercial enterprises. We are facing the complete privatization of the social service sector in coming years, and this is going to engender enormous protests.... It's not the middle class anymore, but Putin's own political base that's going to move into opposition."

'Maddening for thinking people'

But it has been the Russian middle class – young, educated, urban professionals and business people, who make up about 15 percent of the population – who've been coming into the streets of Moscow for the past few months to shout anti-Putin slogans, but also to argue for fair elections, rule of law, and a genuine crackdown on corruption. On Sunday, police gave them a whiff of tear gas.

"The authorities are behaving in a really arrogant manner, and it's really getting maddening for thinking people," says Andrei Petrov, a student at the prestigious Institute of Foreign Relations in Moscow, which trains Russian diplomats. "Nobody wants to split the country, or cause a disaster, but laws should be the same for everybody....

"Even if we can't change the country's leadership, we can have these public protests and show we have our positions and we're going to stick to them. These protests will continue."

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