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Hundreds arrested at anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia

iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) — Police have arrested hundreds of demonstrators at opposition rallies across Russia on Saturday that are aimed at protesting Vladimir Putin, two days ahead of his inauguration as president for a fourth term.

Thousands joined the demonstrations in dozens of cities that were called by opposition leader Alexey Navalny as a display of dissent ahead of the inauguration on Monday and to protest what they said is a lack of political freedom under Putin.

Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who has become Putin’s most troublesome political opponent, was detained as he approached a rally in central Moscow, where a few thousand people had gathered at the city’s Pushkin Square.

Mobile-phone video shot at the rally showed Navalny being picked up by riot police and dragged by his arms and legs into a van.

In Moscow and many other cities, authorities had refused Navalny’s supporters’ request to hold a rally at the site, and declared it unauthorized. Moscow’s mayor’s office had offered an alternative site for a rally, but Navalny rejected that offer, saying that it violated people’s rights to hold a demonstration in the city center and calling it a “provocation.”

Shortly after the protests began, Moscow police in riot gear ultimately ordered demonstrators to disperse. They surrounded protestors and then aggressively shoved through the crowd, dragging out those holding placards.

As of Saturday afternoon local time, about 1,000 people had been arrested, including nearly 500 in Moscow, according to OVD Info, a monitoring group that tracks detentions.

Authorities in Moscow said police behaved professionally and in line with the law. The head of the city’s security department, Vladimir Chernikov, told the news agency Interfax that the police had acted “properly and calmly,” and criticized the rally’s organizers for making “provocations.”

Smaller rallies took place across Russia, from Sochi on the Black Sea to Yakutia in Russia’s remote east, where 75 people were reported to have been detained. OVD Info said there had been arrests in at least 19 cities.

The demonstrations were held under the slogan, “He’s not a tsar to us.” Demonstrators called on Putin to step down.

On Monday, Putin will be inaugurated at a ceremony in the Kremlin for a fourth term as president, having already led Russia for 18 years. Putin was re-elected in mid-March with over 76 percent of the vote, in an election that was criticized by international monitors as marked by pressure on voters and lacking real competition.

Putin has genuine popularity in Russia, and with the country’s media dominated by the Kremlin and the opposition marginalized, Putin’s re-election had never been in doubt. His critics have therefore dubbed Monday’s inauguration– which will be held with pomp in the Kremlin’s gilded halls — a coronation.

In Moscow, some of the demonstrators wore paper crowns; reporters saw one man dressed in a full king costume hauled away by police.

Navalny, who called for the demonstrations, has become Putin’s most prominent political challenger. He was prevented from running in the election, kept off the ballot by a fraud conviction that he says is trumped up.

A former lawyer, Navalny has attracted a sizeable following, particularly among the young, through his irreverent investigations into alleged corruption among the Kremlin elite. Over the past two years, he has converted that into a grassroots political movement with thousands of volunteers across Russia, which he has mobilized for protests every few months.

The Kremlin has responded by harassing Navalny and his supporters. Their headquarters are regularly searched by police, and some have suffered physical assaults by unknown assailants.

Ahead of Saturday’s rallies, several organizers from Navalny’s group were detained in a number of regions. Navalny himself is regularly arrested, and last year was almost blinded when anti-septic was thrown into his eyes by a pro-Kremlin activist.

On Saturday, a counter-demonstration by members of the radical pro-Putin group, NOD, occupied the Moscow square before the Navalny supporters arrived. Approximately 40 of them — some dressed in Soviet military uniforms and singing with an accordion player — confronted the Navalny supporters, yelling slogans at them.

Police later arrested some of the pro-Putin supporters, but others seemed to be working with the officers to help corral the Navalny supporters. A group of Cossacks, an ultra-nationalist community descended from Tsarist-era horsemen, joined in chasing demonstrators.

The chaotic arrests in Moscow were an echo of protests held the day before Putin’s last inauguration in 2012, which ended in violent clashes with police. Dozens of criminal cases were later brought against demonstrators, some of whom received harsh prison sentences that were criticized by human rights groups.

The so-called “Bolotnaya cases,” named after the square close to the Kremlin where the protests took place, cast a chill on Russia’s opposition scene, which has become increasingly marginal since.

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