Britain’s Telegraph reports on the overwhelming force used to crush the St. Petersburg protest march on Sunday:
Russia’s dwindling band of Kremlin critics tried to exercise their right to peaceful protest for the second time in as many days yesterday. And once again, they were met by riot police who showed neither mercy nor discrimination in their unprovoked response, freely wielding their batons at female students and male pensioners alike. As in Moscow on Saturday, yesterday’s March of Those Who Disagree in the nation’s second city of St Petersburg ended in mass detentions.
About 1,500 supporters of The Other Russia, a coalition uniting some of the disparate groups opposed to President Putin, gathered in a square to march down the city’s main street. After a 90-minute rally, permitted by the authorities, a core of about 400 tried to go along an unsanctioned route to the government headquarters. Outnumbered by the security forces, they never stood a chance. Phalanxes of riot police, directed by a helicopter, blocked every entrance to the square. As the protesters neared the Vitebsky railway station, the police charged, their batons flailing indiscriminately. A young male protester, covering his face in a futile attempt to stop the blows being rained upon him, was dragged on to a police bus. Another lay on the pavement nearby, his face covered in blood. A female pensioner waved an Orthodox cross as a line of helmeted officers, their arms interlinked, marched towards her. She implored God to forgive them as she too was bundled on to the bus, where detainees were subjected to further beatings. Ignoring chants of “shame” from protesters and passersby, the police grew more frenzied. Sweeping through a park, they pinned an elderly man to an iron railing and beat him senseless as his wife screamed nearby. At no point did the protesters try to fight back and only one was guilty of provocation when he threw lemonade over the police.
Some of those detained were doing nothing more than sitting on park benches. More than 150 people were seized including Eduard Limonov, the controversial leader of the National Bolshevik Party and one of Mr Putin’s most outspoken critics. An earlier protest in Moscow on Saturday also ended in violence and detentions. The former chess champion Garry Kasparov, now a prominent figure in the Other Russia movement, was held for 12 hours and later fined. According to his lawyer, he was found guilty of “shouting anti-government slogans in the presence of a large group of people”. After his release, Mr Kasparov condemned the police brutality. “The Russian state has shown it no longer respects the world press, public opinion or even Russian law,” he said. “Now it is a country somewhere between Belarus and Zimbabwe.” Since Mr Putin came to power in 2000, Russia has evolved from a dysfunctional quasi-democracy into near-autocracy. As repressive law has followed repressive law, open dissention has almost totally disappeared. With presidential and parliamentary elections due in the next 12 months, Mr Putin, who is meant to step down next year, is keen to keep things that way.
Enjoying huge domestic popularity, some have questioned the need to crush tiny Opposition protests. However, analysts say he has no choice. A failure to react toughly could persuade more Russians to join the demonstrations, raising the prospect of a repeat of Ukraine’s pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004. The tactic seems to be working. With four out of the last five Other Russia marches ending in police crackdowns, numbers of those participating have fallen away. But in some ways the opposition also has itself to blame. St Petersburg is the closest it has to a Russian stronghold, although even here liberal parties would struggle to command 10 per cent of the vote.
That the turnout yesterday was so poor reflects not only public fear but also disappointment at the Opposition’s failure to unite. Meanwhile, Mr Putin’s greatest rival, the London-based oligarch Boris Berezovsky, has suggested he was misrepresented in an interview with The Guardian in which he allegedly called for the violent overthrow of the Russian government. “I do support direct action,” Mr Berezovsky said in a statement. “I do not advocate or support violence”.