The diverse prodemocracy coalition of "dissenters" led by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov confronted what he calls Vladimir Putin's "police state" by successfully staging officially forbidden small rallies in Russia's two largest cities last weekend.
Police easily prevailed in the street showdowns against protesters, many of them elderly, in Moscow and St. Petersburg. But the sometimes harsh overreaction by thousands of helmeted riot troopers, wearing body armor and wielding truncheons, has led Mr. Kasparov – himself hauled away by police on Moscow's central Pushkin Square Saturday and detained for several hours – to declare that he is winning the debate.
"Today, the mask came off the Putin police state," said Kasparov in a statement Sunday. "They are violating the Constitution. It's obvious the regime is nervous and unstable if this is how they react to a nonviolent march."
Kasparov's coalition, called The Other Russia, is a collection of liberals, leftists, neocommunists, and moderate nationalists who agree only that civil liberties are being snuffed out under Mr. Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule and that dramatic public action is needed to awaken society to the danger. Critics say that their tactic of holding rallies that have been banned by authorities invites trouble.
The Other Russia's application for a permit to march at Pushkin Square Saturday was rejected, though City Hall on Wednesday agreed to let the group meet at Turgenev Square.
9,000 troops arrest 170 protesters
But Kasparov and a few hundred Other Russia supporters planned to meet at Pushkin Square nevertheless.
Ahead of the march, the City Prosecutor's Office reiterated its March order for the National Bolsheviks, a core party in the Other Russia coalition, to cease its participation in rallies. The office recommended last month that the City Court label the party an extremist group, citing violation of the country's new anti-extremism laws.
On Saturday morning, the Main Interior Directorate's official representative Yevgeniy Gildeyev warned that the police would be tough on the protesters.
"It is not important for the police what action is being held and what people are demanding. The main thing for us is whether the action has been sanctioned, whether it has been allowed or banned by the authorities," he told Ehko Moskovy radio station. "In this respect, our direct duty is to suppress all the activities that will be carried out illegally. These [activities] violate the law, which we enforce."
An estimated 9,000 police and Interior troops descended on Pushkin Square Saturday, where only a few hundred The Other Russia supporters turned out for the "Dissenters' March."
Lines of troops boxed in the small group of protesters, then repeatedly charged them, beating many and dragging several away in a lock position with truncheons pulled tight against their throats.
Pro-Kremlin protesters rally nearby, unhindered
Across the square, and unhindered by the phalanxes of riot police, about 1,000 members of the pro-Kremlin "Young Guard" youth movement were holding a rally in support of Putin.
According to the Moscow Times, the Young Guard filed its application a minute before Other Russia with the express intent of preventing the Dissenters' March. It received a permit for 15,000 people to gather at the square at the same time.
Andrey Safronov, a member of the Young Guard political council, told Ekho Moskvy a week ago that the "Consenters' March" was a response "to the provocative attempts by politically marginalized elements to provoke chaos at any cost and to launch an 'Orange' scenario in Russia so as to recast the country alongside imported molds."
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Duma deputy and leader of the recently banned Republican Party, who was threatened and jostled by police Saturday, underscored that point.
"It seems our authorities are paranoid. They fear a [Ukrainian-style] Orange Revolution will break out if they let people express themselves," Mr. Ryzhkov said. "We are peaceful people in the center of our own city, yet we're not allowed to gather or move freely."
About 2,000 Kasparov supporters trying to reach Turgenev Square were similarly dispersed by police. Officially, 170 protesters were arrested, though journalists saw no illegal behavior beyond chanting political slogans – such as "Russia without Putin" and "Down with the Chekist [KGB] State!" – and the occasional taunt directed at police.
A Kasparov aide, Marina Litvinovich, says police detained 600 people, many of whom were quickly released.
On Saturday news programs, Russian state TV channels offered scant mention of the pro-democracy march and no details of police violence, but gave lengthy coverage of a large and festive pro-Putin rally on Moscow's Sparrow Hills. Thousands of members of the Kremlin-sponsored youth movement Nashi had been bused in for the event.
Repeat performance in St. Petersburg
The scene was similar in St. Petersburg on Sunday, where an estimated 3,000 Other Russia protesters were confronted by thousands of police backed by armored vehicles and water cannons. Dozens were arrested. Organizers claimed that many activists were pulled off trains or arrested on their way to the rally. "Police detained me as soon as I left my house this morning," Olga Kurnosova, a Kasparov supporter in St. Petersburg, told Reuters.
Over the weekend President Putin, who has made no comment about the protests, was attending a freestyle wrestling match between American and Russian competitors in St. Petersburg, Russia's NTV network reported Sunday. Among the guests were ex-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and movie star Jean Claude Van Damme.
"Your kind of sport is very tough, but it is characterized by a sense of nobility and respect for one's opponent," NTV quoted Putin as telling the wrestlers. "It is, of course, a sport for courageous people."