The Kremlin yesterday struck back against rising popular discontent in the aftermath of parliamentary elections, arresting and jailing opposition leaders and sending thousands of flag-waving youths to disrupt attempts by disgruntled Muscovites to rally again.
Despite efforts to counter Monday's large rallies with young people screaming their love for the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, more than 250 protesters were yesterday manhandled into police vans and detained.
The trigger for the two days of protests, which have taken most Russian analysts and politicians by surprise, was Sunday's elections; Mr Putin's United Russia party polled just under 50 per cent of the vote, down from 64 per cent four years ago.
Opposition groups have said even this number is unfairly inflated, citing numerous electoral violations and widespread pressure on people to vote in the "correct" way. Opposition forces frequently rally in Moscow, but they usually muster 200 people at best. This week has been different. On Monday night, about 8,000 people gathered and listened to speeches by opposition leaders, before a section of the crowd attempted to match on the Lubyanka, headquarters of the KGB's successors, the FSB, and the detentions began.
Yesterday evening's protest was banned from the start, meaning riot police could arrest people simply for showing up. This apparently did not apply to the several thousand teenagers from the pro-Putin youth group Nashi as they waved Russian flags and banged on plastic drums, led by co-ordinators shouting into loudspeakers in repeated chants of "Putin! Russia!" and "Medvedev! Victory!"
Disparate groups of opposition protesters, unable to unite due to the legions of Nashi surrounding them and police tactics of dividing the crowds into small groups , began chants of "Russia without Putin!" and "Putin is a thief". A number of well-known opposition politicians and activists were detained, including Sergei Mitrokhin of Yabloko, a liberal party that had stood in the elections, and Boris Nemtsov, a well-known opposition leader.
"I was briefly detained, but then they realised who I was," said Ilya Ponomaryov, an MP with Fair Russia, a party that was set up as one of the Kremlin's "sham opposition" parties, but in recent months appeared to have gone rogue. "They have crossed all the lines now – if before our demand was that people should lose their jobs, now it's that they should go to prison," he said.
Mr Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have tried to portray Sunday's result as a victory, but it is clear the Kremlin has been unnerved by the level of protests. Mr Putin yesterday promised – without elaborating – a "significant renewal" of government personnel next year, while Mr Medvedev took the offensive, saying allegations of electoral fraud could be provocations and should be investigated.
But the discontent appears to run deeper than the election results and can be traced back to the moment in September when Mr Putin said he would stand in the March presidential elections for a return to the Kremlin. "The turning point wasn't these elections, the turning point was when Putin was whistled," said Mr Ponomaryov, referring to an incident last month when the Prime Minister addressed a packed stadium after a martial arts fight and was booed and whistled at by the crowd. "That was the people showing what they really think, finally," Mr Ponomaryov said. "The rally yesterday showed us that when we are together, we can win, and I'm sure we will."
Those arrested on Monday night came before Moscow courts yesterday. Ilya Yashin, one of the organisers of Monday night's rally, was given 15 days in jail, as was the rising star of the Russian internet, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who said he had been held in a cell overnight and all day without food. Others who had been detained were also put on trial, while an editor from the Russian version of Forbes magazine was taken to hospital when he fell ill after spending the night in a cell. Colleagues said he had been at the event as a journalist, not a protester.
"Of course we will continue protesting," Mr Yashin told journalists after the verdict. "This is no doubt a political decision aimed at intimidating me and my colleagues." He predicted that the detentions could "arouse even more discontent among the people".