ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Riot police beat and detained dozens of anti-Kremlin demonstrators Sunday on a second day of protests that tested the weak opposition’s ability to challenge widely popular President Vladimir Putin.
As in Moscow a day earlier, only a few thousand people turned out in St. Petersburg to criticize the government. Opposition leaders called that a heartening response in the face of the huge police forces massed against both rallies.
Putin’s foes said the harsh handling of demonstrators, who included many elderly people, would fuel a growing sense that the leader is strangling democracy ahead of parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote next spring.
But the opposition is in severe straits. Opinion polls rate Putin as Russia’s most popular political figure by far, thanks to newfound political stability and rapid economic growth fueled by high world oil prices. That popularity has cowed mainstream politicians in parliament and allowed Putin to strengthen the Kremlin’s powers.
His government controls the main television news, allowing his critics few appearances on the prime source of information in the sprawling country. The Rossiya channel on Sunday showed only brief footage of the Moscow protest – after opening with a report on Putin, a judo black belt, attending a martial arts match.
Opposition leaders said they were determined to push ahead. Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion who has become the most prominent figure in opposition factions loosely allied in the Other Russia coalition, called it “truly amazing” that 2,000 protesters would turn out in Moscow to face 9,000 police and interior ministry troops.
“It shows that the apathy in Russian society is gradually being replaced by very active, vocal protest,” he told the Associated Press.
While television didn’t show much of the confrontations, many ordinary Russians who witnessed the events appeared dismayed by the police crackdown. As an elderly woman comforted a bleeding youth lying on the ground Sunday, a passer-by remarked bitterly, “So this is what they call democracy.”
St. Petersburg authorities gave permission for the protest rally but kept it under tight control. Helmeted riot police ringed the square, a helicopter hovered noisily overhead, and hundreds of police reinforcements waited in trucks and buses lining nearby streets.
After the 90-minute rally, police clashed with groups of demonstrators making their way to a nearby subway station.
They first attacked a group including Sergei Gulyayev, an independent-minded former member of the city council, beating him and several others severely. Sporadic clashes continued for about an hour, with police charging groups of people young and old and clubbing those in their way.
It was not clear what provoked the clashes. The opposition initially had called for a march after the rally to the city government headquarters, but authorities banned that action.
Several of the rally’s organizers were detained, at least one of them before the event started. Police said some 120 people were taken into custody.
Eduard Limonov, head of the banned National Bolshevik Party and widely known for his novels and provocative sense of political theater, was among those arrested, said his local party chief, Andrei Dmitriyev, who said he was beaten himself and detained for a few hours.
Olga Kunosova, the local head of Kasparov’s United Civil Front, said police grabbed her as she left her home to go to the rally. She and Dmitriyev both said they were released after paying fines.
Police in Moscow had detained about 170 people at Saturday’s demonstration, including Kasparov, who was released about 11 hours later after paying a $38 fine.