Putin's 'democracy' is wrapped in an iron fist

Moscow police ruthlessly crushed one of the largest opposition protests of recent years yesterday evening, just two days after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had said that similar rallies should be allowed to take place.

Over 100 people, representing a range of opposition groups from liberals to anarchists, were detained by police and shoved into waiting buses. There were also reports of 30 arrests at a similar rally in St Petersburg.

Activists gather on the last day of every month with 31 days to protest what they say is a violation of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. Usually, there are just a few dozen activists who are quickly dispersed by riot police, but yesterday's protest involved over 1,000 people, and the massed ranks of police struggled to control the crowds.

The crowds faced off against the police for over two hours, shouting "Russia without Putin!" and "Freedom!" Each time a protester was picked off by police and led to the waiting buses, cries went up of "Shame!"

The protest came just two days after Mr Putin was challenged in an unusually aggressive way by a leading Russian rock musician over the absence of political freedom in the country. Yury Shevchuk, leader of the band DDT, an iconic 1980s rock group that still has a huge following, has become known for making speeches critical of the authorities during concerts. Invited to take part in a round table for St Petersburg artists with Mr Putin, he took his chance to take his grievances directly to the Prime Minister. In a tense discussion lasting several minutes, he asked if Mr Putin really wanted democratisation, and he also asked whether the Article 31 protest planned for St Petersburg would be broken up by riot police.

"Without normal democratic development, the country has no future," answered Mr Putin curtly, visibly irritated. He also said that there was nothing wrong with opposition protests in principle. "If I see that people... are pointing to crucial issues that the authorities should pay attention to, what can be wrong with that? One should say, 'thank you'." But he added that if demonstrations caused inconvenience to other citizens, they should be banned.

Mr Putin scolded Mr Shevchuk for interrupting him at one point, and when the musician suggested that the Russian Prime Minister had the political weight to intervene and stop police crushing the protests, Mr Putin shot back that his weight was a mere 76 kilograms.

It is rare that Mr Putin is challenged in public on these kinds of issues, with many meetings carefully stage-managed by his handlers, and Mr Shevchuk said he was called before the meeting by an aide to the Prime Minister and asked to refrain from asking any awkward questions. Mr Putin dismissed this claim as a "provocation", and said it was impossible that he had received such a call.

Later, aides to Mr Putin said that authorising protests was a matter for local authorities, and the Prime Pinister had no right to intervene. Nevertheless, Mr Putin's words were widely discussed on Russian internet sites, and led many to believe the police might show more restraint than usual.

Instead, they appeared under orders to be even more merciless. In an often-used scheme, a pro-Kremlin youth movement put on their own protest on the very same square, complete with a big stage and booming loudspeakers. In surreal scenes, the Russian national anthem was played at ear-splitting volume from the adjacent stage, as rows of riot police rushed the crowds and picked out protesters for arrest.

Those who resisted were dragged flailing along the ground to waiting buses; one Russian cameraman attempting to film events was punched and shoved back into the crowd, knocking over two elderly women. Police sources said that 135 people had been detained, while Eduard Limonov, one of the opposition leaders, said the real figure was closer to 200.

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