Kasparov is jailed after Moscow rally
Former chess champion and opposition figurehead Gary Kasparov and dozens of other anti-Kremlin demonstrators were arrested Saturday as they marched along a slushy downtown street hollering, “Russia without Putin!”
Riot police pounced on the activists and stuffed them into police vans after they pushed ahead with a banned preelection march through the bustling streets of the capital.
Also detained was Eduard Limonov, another prominent dissident and head of the group formerly known as the National Bolshevik Party, which itself is banned by the Kremlin.
“If the regime is preserved, the country will die,” Kasparov told at least 1,000 cheering protesters shortly before his arrest. “That’s why we’re here. We’ll protect the country.”
Kasparov was charged with resisting police and violating the law regulating mass rallies and quickly sentenced to five days in jail.
The so-called March of Dissent was organized as a crowning show of defiance to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as the country prepares for parliamentary elections next weekend. Putin is heading the United Russia party ticket, and his supporters have instructed Russians to treat the election as a referendum on his popular rule.
“Putin’s plan is only this: to stay in power forever,” said Yelena Vasilyeva, a 48-year-old ecologist who traveled to Moscow from Murmansk to participate in Saturday’s protest. “If your opinion differs from the opinion of Vladimir Putin, then they send the riot police to crack down on you.”
Russia’s political climate has grown increasingly tense as the election draws near. The improbable patchwork of opposition parties that organized the protest accused the Kremlin of plans to falsify the vote. New restrictions have blocked most of the parties from fielding candidates.
In recent weeks, signs have sprouted throughout Moscow declaring: “Victory for Putin is victory for Russia” and “Moscow votes for Putin.”
The capital is full of speculation these days about his next post: prime minister, ruling party chief, or some sort of ill-defined national leader, as some of his supporters have suggested.
Whatever his new job title may be, many observers believe Putin will keep a tight grip on power.
Putin lashed out at his critics last week, calling them “jackals” who feed off foreign embassies and count on overseas governments for support. “All of these people remain in the political arena,” Putin said. “They will now come out into the streets.”
Despite polls that show higher than 80% approval for Putin, the president and his allies portray their opponents -- a ragtag assortment of relatively unpopular, perpetually infighting parties -- as a political threat to be squashed at all costs.
“Either they [Putin and his allies] go to the Kremlin or they will go to prison,” Maria Gaidar of the Union of Right Forces told the crowd. “Don’t be afraid. Let them be afraid.”
As the voices of opposition leaders boomed over the crowd, loud wails of heavy metal music blasted from beyond a nearby construction site. Putin’s followers apparently were determined to disrupt the rally.
“Those are the cries of devils,” Limonov told the crowd. “Do you hear their voices?”
After rallying in the afternoon chill to hear their leaders speak, the marchers set off to deliver a formal complaint to the Central Elections Committee. They strode quickly along the street, lighting small flares as they marched.
After a few blocks, riot police closed in from both sides. For more than an hour, protesters played cat and mouse with police officers in the throngs of reporters and passersby. One by one, they were hauled away to the vans.
Some tried to run from the police van, only to be prodded back up the stairs with hard shoves from police.
“If they arrest me, that will be good,” said Yevegeny Buyakin, an 18-year-old Moscow State University student who stood smoking a cigarette and watching the tumult. The towering flag in his hand identified him as a demonstrator. “I’ll show people by example what kind of authority we have.”
A woman whose gray hair peeked from under her hat sauntered past the police, taunting them.
“Did they pay you a lot today?” she asked them. “You’ll get a promotion.”
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.