MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow on Sunday in protest ahead of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration Monday to a third presidential term, leading to clashes with police near the Kremlin. Several hundred people were arrested, including three opposition leaders, and dozens were injured.
The gathering had been called as the March of Millions to protest alleged cheating in the March presidential election that gave Putin a new six-year presidential term. However, many Muscovites had left the city to celebrate the warm and sunny Victory Day weekend, and turnout was far lower than organizers had hoped.
“It was a mistake to call this a March of Millions, as the opposition movement now is definitely not at its peak,” said one protest leader, Boris Nemtsov. “It gives the authorities a new reason to discredit us and prepare new provocations for us.”
The protest began peacefully as the crowd quietly proceeded through downtown Moscow to the planned site of a rally in Bolotnaya Square, across the Moscow River from the Kremlin.
They carried posters with slogans such as “Let’s not let a thief into the Kremlin” and “Let’s drop the rat off the boat.” Two 4-year-old girls holding hands with their smiling father were chanting, “Russia without Putin!” and “We won’t forget and forgive!” to the crowd’s amusement.
Banners ranging from the Communists’ red flag with a hammer and sickle to the rainbow flag of gay rights activists flew over the crowd.
Alexander Loginov, 39, a high-tech specialist, carried the Canadian flag, saying, “This is the only flag I had at home.” Gracefully circling a group of protesters on his roller sneakers, he added: “One police officer said to me at the last rally in March: ‘If you number about 5,000 we will beat you up, if you number 50,000 we won’t touch you, but if you number 500,000 we will march along with you.’ So today we won’t end up beaten up.”
Clashes began as the cordons of riot police, municipal service trucks and police vans blocked the bridge leading to the Kremlin, leaving only a narrow path for marchers to reach Bolotnaya Square, where as a stage had been set up for opposition speakers. Harsh words turned to pushing and shoving as the crowd grew denser along the police lines.
“Let’s have a party at the Kremlin tonight!” a young protester shouted. Another responded with: “There are free cigarettes and drinks in the Kremlin up for grabs.”
The crowd laughed and pushed harder. The police raised their truncheons and the melee ensued.
Four policemen found themselves surrounded by the angry crowd, their sticks and helmets taken away. One police officer managed to break through with blood streaming down his face. Flares, stones, pieces of asphalt, sticks, coins, cans and bottles flew from the crowd toward police, causing more injuries.
Then police began beating protesters with truncheons amid the heavy smoke of the flares.
One man with a white ribbon on his chest symbolizing protest sat on the pavement where a medic was bandaging his heavily bleeding head. The man, who gave his name only as Andrei, said he tried to tear away his friend from the arms of the police when he was hit on the head with something from behind.
“When I found myself on the ground," he said. "A policeman sprayed tear gas into my eyes and started to drag me somewhere then dropped me, seeing blood streaming from my head.”
A middle-aged woman passed out nearby. A photographer was screaming at the doctor in the ambulance parked nearby to do something to help her. “My ambulance is packed,” the doctor screamed back. “More [medical] teams are on the way!”
Police said they arrested more than 250 protesters, the largest number detained since protests in December over disputed parliamentary elections brought more than 100,000 people to the streets. At least 10 people were delivered to Moscow hospitals with injuries.
Nemtsov and fellow opposition leaders Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov were arrested. The police then declared the rally over and began pushing the protesters off the square.
“From my point of view the police acted softly,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, said Sunday night in an interview with the television network Dozhd. “I would rather they acted tougher.”
But Gennady Gudkov, deputy chief of the parliament security committee, said police had provoked the clashes.
“The protest movement is getting radicalized because the authorities refuse to conduct a dialogue with the opposition,” said Gudkov, who witnessed the clashes. “We don’t see any real concessions from the Kremlin to the civic society and naturally the most active protesters who don’t see any other options to express their demands resort to violence.”
— Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: A protester tries to dial a number on his cellphone as he is being dragged away to a police van during a Sunday clash near the Kremlin in Moscow. Credit: Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times.