Protests, rallies and arrests: Russia gears up for election

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The Independent Online

With a week to go to Russia's parliamentary elections, police have detained a host of opposition activists and politicians at a series of protest rallies in Moscow and St Petersburg.

A few hundred metres away from where the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg and set off the October Revolution 90 years ago, a group of opposition activists gathered yesterday in Palace Square to call for a new revolution against the rule of Vladimir Putin. But these would-be revolutionaries have little support among the public and almost no access to the Russian media to put their message across. Only a few hundred people turned up to the Sunday morning march to shout slogans of "Russia without Putin!" and of these, more than 100 were detained, according to reports from the scene.

The small number of dissenters didn't stop the authorities from taking a harsh, seemingly disproportionate response. The protesters, as is usual for such events, were outnumbered by riot police, who dished out apparently random beatings.

Those arrested included Nikita Belykh and Boris Nemtsov, both leaders of the Union of Right Forces party (SPS), which is the only liberal party with even the faintest hope of breaking the 7 per cent barrier required to make it into the next parliament. Mr Nemtsov had been nominated on Friday as the party's candidate to stand in presidential elections in March.

That SPS was taking part in the march at all shows how much the Kremlin has stifled mainstream political debate in the run-up to the election season. Many leading figures in SPS were members of the reformist cabinets of the 1990s, the policies of which many Russians blame for economic hardships.

Mr Nemtsov himself was once deputy prime minister of Russia, and Anatoly Chubais, another SPS leader, is head of UES, the state-controlled electricity giant. Recently, the party has become more critical of the Kremlin, but it is only now that it has started taking to the streets.

The party has reported crushing pressure from the authorities in the run-up to next Sunday's vote, with its candidates threatened, and campaign material seized on suspicion that it may violate "extremism" laws.

A spokeswoman for Yabloko, the other major Russian liberal party, told Associated Press that several party members running in next Sunday's vote had been beaten and detained in St Petersburg.

Notable absentees from the march in St Petersburg were the leaders of the Other Russia coalition, Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion now one of Mr Putin's harshest critics, and Eduard Limonov, who heads the banned National Bolshevik Party. The two men were detained at a similar rally in Moscow on Saturday. Unlike SPS and Yabloko, Other Russia is not even on the ballot for Sunday's elections, having been denied registration.

Mr Nemtsov was released on Sunday afternoon, but a spokeswoman for Mr Kasparov confirmed late on Saturdaythat the activist had been sentenced to five days in jail, for taking part in an illegal demonstration. Other opposition figures were detained at the Moscow march, where there were reports of police violence.

The crackdown on opponents comes amid a concerted Kremlin effort to promote the elections as a referendum on Mr Putin's time in power. United Russia, the party he now leads is expected to win an overwhelming victory. Mr Putin is constitutionally barred from a third consecutive presidential term but is expected to continue his influential role in Russian politics.