Russian police have detained opposition leader Alexei Navalny and over 1000 protestors at a demonstration against President Vladimir Putin in central Moscow.
Thousands of demonstrators denouncing Putin’s upcoming inauguration into a fourth term gathered on Saturday in the capital’s Pushkin Square.
Video showed police carrying a struggling Navalny, who is Putin’s most prominent foe, out of the square, carrying him by the legs and arms.
Police in riot gear waded into the crowd on Pushkin Square and were seen grabbing some demonstrators and leading them away. A helicopter hovered overhead to monitor the crowd.
The unauthorised protest was part of a day of nationwide demonstrations. Police made arrests at demonstrations in some other cities.
News reports and social media postings said protests had attracted hundreds or more in at least 10 cities in the east and Siberia.
Navalny had called for demonstrations in more than 90 towns and cities across Russia against what he says is Putin’s autocratic, tsar-like rule.
“We will force the authorities, made up of swindlers and thieves, to take into account the millions of citizens who did not vote for Putin,” Navalny said beforehand.
Putin overwhelmingly won re-election in March, extending his grip over Russia for six more years - a tenure of 24 years that would make him Moscow’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Navalny, who was barred from running in the election on what he says was a false pretext, was detained soon after showing up on Moscow’s Pushkin Square, where young people chanted “Russia without Putin!” and “Down with the Tsar!”.
Navalny, who has been detained and jailed numerous times for organising similar protests, had managed to address his supporters briefly, saying he was glad they had shown up.
One protester in Moscow, donning a rabbit’s mask with the legend “Tsar of the Animals” said he was unsure what the protest would achieve.
“I have the feeling that people are gathering just to let off steam and that nothing will change,” said the 31-year-old man called Alexander, who declined to give his surname.
OVD-Info, a rights organisation that monitors detentions, said it had received reports of police detaining over 1,000 people across Russia, nearly 500 of them in Moscow. It cited its own sources at the Moscow protest as saying pro-Kremlin Cossacks had beaten protesters with leather whips, sparking a fight.
A police spokesman said around 1,500 people had protested in Moscow, the Interfax news agency reported. Reuters reporters estimated the crowd numbered several thousand.
Protests also took place in the Far East, Siberia and St Petersburg. In the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, around 1,500 km (900 miles) east of Moscow, a Reuters reporter saw more than 1,000 people protesting, some shouting “Down with the Tsar!”
FATHER OF THE NATION
Putin, 65, has been in power, either as president or prime minister, since 2000.
Backed by state TV and the ruling party, and credited with an approval rating of around 80 percent, he is lauded by supporters as a father-of-the-nation figure who has restored national pride and expanded Moscow’s global clout with interventions in Syria and Ukraine.
The authorities regard most of the protests as illegal, arguing that their time and place was not approved beforehand, and that the police have a duty to protect public order.
Putin has dismissed Navalny as a troublemaker bent on sowing chaos on behalf of Washington. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a close Putin ally, has called Navalny a political charlatan.
Putin is due to be inaugurated on Monday in a Kremlin ceremony heavy on pomp.
With more than 56 million votes, almost 77 percent of the total, his March election win was his biggest ever and the largest by any post-Soviet Russian leader, something he and his allies say gave him an unequivocal mandate to govern.
European observers said there had been no real choice in the election, and complained of unfair pressure on critical voices. Critics like Navalny accuse Putin of overseeing a corrupt authoritarian system and of annexing Ukraine’s Crimea illegally in 2014, a move that isolated Russia internationally.