Russian opposition stages new protests, over 20 held

MOSCOW Sat Mar 17, 2012 2:40pm EDT

1 of 3. Russian police detain a participant during an opposition rally in central Moscow March 17, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Konstantin Koutsyllo

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian police detained more than 20 people near the Kremlin on Saturday as the opposition staged two new anti-government protests following Vladimir Putin's presidential election win.

About 300 people attended the main demonstration at Pushkin Square in central Moscow where they listened to prominent opposition leaders condemning Putin's allegedly fraud-ridden election victory. A police spokesman said two people had been detained at the rally.

"There are not that many people here today but there are millions of us against Putin," 54 year-old businessman Vladimir Uralov told Reuters. "There was a majority against Putin in Moscow in the election. I think a lot of people are afraid now."

A wave of anti-Putin protests began over allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election won by his ruling United Russia party on December 4. But the protests have ebbed since Putin won a new, six-year presidential term on March 4 with almost 64 percent of the vote.

The crowd at Pushkin Square chanted "Russia without Putin," demanding the release of inmates they regarded as political prisoners. But protestors carried no banners for fear of arrest. Some wore white ribbons, the symbol of their protest movement.

A smaller protest was held on Revolution Square, near the Kremlin walls, by opposition activists demonstrating against the arrest of a fellow activist and ecologist in southern Russia on what they said were trumped-up charges.

"More than 20 people were detained for holding an unsanctioned rally," a police spokesman said, declining further comment.

The opposition Yabloko party, whose leader Grigory Yavlinsky was barred from running in the March 4 presidential poll, said three of its members were among those detained.

Putin and his aides have said the scale of election fraud was limited and that his victory was fair and legitimate.

MORE PROTESTS PLANNED

At least one more large protest is planned before his inauguration on May 7. Putin has been in power as president or prime minister for the past 12 years. The new term will extend his rule of Russia up until 2018 at which point he would be eligible to try to secure a new six-year term.

Tens of thousands of people have attended rallies against his dominance in the past three months, demanding political reform and free elections. But Putin has rejected their main demands, sometimes mocking the opposition.

Fewer than 20,000 demonstrators gathered at an officially sanctioned protest last week, witnesses said, about a quarter of the size of the last protest before Putin's electoral triumph. Some say they are afraid of clashes after mass detentions at unsanctioned rallies the day after Putin's election win.

Neither of the two Moscow rallies on Saturday was approved by the city authorities, putting all of those who attended under threat of arrest.

The roughly 300 protesters who gathered in Pushkin Square listened to opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov and Sergei Udaltsov speak.

Addressing the crowd without a microphone on the steps beneath a statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, far-left leader Udaltsov called for a "march of the millions" on May 6, the day before Putin's inauguration.

Further demonstrations are scheduled throughout the weekend, with the "Breakthrough" civil movement planning to hold an overnight vigil at a statue of World War Two hero Marshal Georgy Zhukov outside Red Square to protest against Putin.

On Sunday, a demonstration is set to take place at the Ostankino television tower in Moscow. The NTV channel, which is pro-Kremlin, broadcast a documentary on the opposition movement this week which alleged that Russians were paid to attend anti-Putin rallies.

Nemtsov denied this, telling the crowd on Pushkin Square that no one had been paid to attend opposition protests but that some people had received money to take part in pro-Putin rallies. He urged the crowd not to watch NTV.

(Reporting By Timothy Heritage and Anton Zverev; Writing by Alfred Kueppers; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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