MOSCOW - A demonstration by at least 20,000 people on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as president turned into a battle with police Sunday after some protesters tried to split off from the approved venue and march to the Kremlin.
Club-wielding officers wearing helmets seized demonstrators and hauled them to police vehicles, dragging some by the hair, others by the neck. Several protesters were injured.
Three leaders of the opposition movement that gained new life over the winter were among those arrested: Sergei Udaltsov, Alexei Navalny, and Boris Nemtsov. More than 400 people were arrested, and Russia’s chief investigative agency said it was considering filing criminal charges of inciting riots against some of them. Police reported that 12 riot police officers were injured.
Previous installments of a wave of protests that burst out after fraud-plagued parliamentary elections in December had been marked by fastidious order. The crowds, sometimes as big as 100,000 or more, had carefully kept to agreed-upon meeting-places and routes, even making a point of thanking police who stood guard in vast numbers, but did not interfere. The break in that pattern probably reflected a sense of anger and impotence among protesters upset that Putin was handily elected to a new term in the Kremlin despite their defiance. Putin, who imposed a political system that stifled dissent and who dismissed the protesters as pampered youths and Western stooges, will be sworn in for a six-year term Monday.
After about an hour of tense confrontation, police began pushing back protesters and harshly detained some of them. Police then detained protesters who had remained peacefully at the approved venue.