MOSCOW - Waves of truncheon-wielding police swiftly broke up a march protesting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government Saturday, arresting Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion and one of the march’s organizers, as well as at least 170 other demonstrators.
Kasparov and other liberal politicians leading the Dissenters’ March movement tried to assemble demonstrators at Moscow’s Pushkin Square but they were met by cordons of riot police swinging their clubs to disperse the crowds. Kasparov was quickly arrested and accused of encouraging demonstrators to break through a police cordon.
The massive police presence in downtown Moscow sent a clear message that authorities were determined to quell the protest before it began. As many as 9,000 riot police were deployed, Russian news agencies reported. Armored police vehicles, police buses and water cannon trucks lined a stretch of Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s equivalent of Michigan Avenue.
Though demonstrators numbering in the thousands remained peaceful throughout the afternoon, on several occasions police were seen clubbing clusters of marchers.
“Right in front of me I saw elderly people being struck by policemen for no reason,” said Maria Snegovaya, a 23-year-old college student studying economics in Moscow. “I don’t understand why they won’t give us even just a little bit of freedom. It’s our right to express that we do not agree with what our authorities do.”
The march was the latest in a series of anti-Putin demonstrations organized by a disparate group of activists and politicians that includes Kasparov, former prime minister and presidential hopeful Mikhail Kasyanov and National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov.
The group’s recent attempts to hold similar marches in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod also were quickly dispersed by large contingents of Russian riot police.
Moscow authorities denied permission for Kasparov and other march organizers to hold their rally at Pushkin Square. Instead, they allowed a pro-Kremlin youth movement called Young Guard to hold a rally on the square on Saturday.
City officials did give Dissenters’ March organizers permission to demonstrate at Turgenev Square, a less prominent location about a mile from Pushkin Square. However, after demonstrators were dispersed from Pushkin Square, their attempts to march to Turgenev Square were thwarted by cordons of police along the way.
“Police carried out a bandit-style attack on Russian citizens today,” Russian media quoted Kasparov as saying as he was on a police bus, speaking on his cell phone. “Martial law was declared in the city today. People were not just blocked but arrested.”
March organizers plan to hold another unauthorized rally in St. Petersburg on Sunday.
Russia’s liberal movement has struggled to gain traction against Putin, whose approval ratings continue to hover above 70 percent. Infighting among the country’s liberal parties have further dimmed their chances in upcoming parliament and presidential elections.
Nevertheless, liberal party leaders in Russia say the Kremlin remains wary of the country’s opposition movement gaining momentum through rallies and is bent on keeping it from building popularity.
“After the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, any activity in the streets is perceived by authorities to be a revolution,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal member of Russia’s lower house of parliament. “That’s the peculiarity of their mentality.”