By Marc Bennetts
A massive police presence in snowy downtown Moscow prevented followers of radical firebrand politician Eduard Limonov from demonstrating on Tuesday evening against the expected return of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin this spring.
“Russia without Putin!” shouted dozens of activists from Limonov’s Other Russia movement as they braved Arctic-like temperatures to make their way to Triumfalnaya Square, just a short walk from Red Square.
But riot police quickly bundled demonstrators, including Limonov, 68, into waiting trucks, as a nearby statue of Soviet-era poet Vladimir Mayakovsky looked on impassively.
Putin, who served two terms as president between 2000 and 2008, was barred by law from standing for a third consecutive term and handed over power to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Opinion polls indicate Putin remains Russia’s most popular politician, but analysts suggest rising discontent could see him forced into a runoff after the March 4 presidential polls.
Police said there were 49 arrests at Tuesday’s illegal protest and that around twice that number had participated. Similar rallies were held in a number of other Russian cities, including St. Petersburg, where 12 people were detained.
Limonov has organized protests in defence of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution – which guarantees the right to free assembly – on and around the square for the past three years on the 31st day of every month that has one.
But the veteran radical and writer told RIA Novosti earlier on Tuesday that he and his followers would seek to both defend the constitution and call for an end to what he called Putin’s “dictatorship” on Tuesday evening.
The protest came as tens of thousands prepare to rally in downtown Moscow and nationwide on Saturday. The Bolotnaya Square demonstration will be the third mass protest in the capital since United Russia just maintained its majority at parliamentary elections last December amid widespread allegations of electoral violations.
Outgoing President Medvedev has pledged electoral reform and vote fraud charges have been brought against a number of officials.
Moscow authorities have given permission for a march through the centre of the city on Saturday, but bypassing both Red Square and the Kremlin. The “For Fair Elections” protest organizers had earlier applied for a march to end outside the Kremlin walls.
Unlike Limonov, the organizers of the vote fraud protests have not formally called for Putin to step down, although chants and banners urging him to quit have been common at the rallies, which have so far drawn a combined total of around 100,000 people. The list of demands drawn up by the “For Fair Elections” organizing committee includes calls for fresh polls and electoral reform, as well as above-board presidential elections in March.
The leaders of opposition groups whose members had earlier stood side-by-side with Limonov and his followers on Triumfalnaya Square ignored Tuesday’s rally ahead of the weekend’s demonstration.
Left Front head Sergei Udaltsov, whose movement recently signed a cooperation pact with the Communist Party, told the Kommersant FM radio station earlier in the day that he and his followers would not be attending Tuesday’s illegal rally together with Limonov in order to prepare for the upcoming vote protest.
“Other rallies are of secondary importance right now,” he said. “They don’t really make any sense.”
But Limonov, who has consistently criticized the organizers of the vote demonstrations for their willingness to compromise with the authorities over locations for the march and boycotted both earlier demonstrations, was scathing.
“Our critics will go to Bolotnaya Square on semi-bended knees,” he said on Tuesday, slamming what he called the “capitulation” to the authorities by march organizers.
But one of the more high-profile organisers of the vote fraud protests, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, dismissed Limonov.
“Some people want revolution,” he told RIA Novosti. “And some people want practical reforms – we want reforms.”