Police officers detain opposition leader Alexei Navalny during an unauthorized rally in Lubyanka Square in Moscow, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012. Thousands of opposition supporters have gathered in central Moscow for an unauthorized rally and several prominent opposition figures have been detained.

Pavel Golovkin, Associated Press

Russians protest despite threat of steep fines

  • New York Times
  • December 15, 2012 - 6:32 PM


MOSCOW - Forcing a showdown with the government of President Vladimir Putin, leaders of the political opposition took to the streets Saturday afternoon for an unsanctioned demonstration in a symbolic square in Moscow that is home to the headquarters of the federal security services as well as a monument to victims of Soviet political repression.

Bundled up against the frigid cold and wind, with the temperature hovering at about 5 degrees Fahrenheit, about 2,000 demonstrators gathered in Lubyanka Square, not far from the Kremlin. They were met by a huge contingent of riot police, who quickly cordoned off the area and began making arrests.

The protest without a permit was a pointed act of defiance, particularly by the two most prominent opposition leaders: Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist, and Sergei Udaltsov of the Left Front, a radical socialist group. Navalny and Udaltsov face a growing number of criminal charges and have lived for weeks with the prospect of imminent arrest.

Udaltsov was seized by police moments after he arrived and hustled into a police van. "Russia will be free," he shouted as he was taken away. Navalny, by contrast, arrived surrounded by a large scrum of photographers and worked the crowd like a politician, shaking hands with supporters. The crowd around him seemed to forestall his arrest, but not for long. He was detained about an hour after his arrival.

Other well-known opposition leaders were given no leeway. A television personality, Kseniya Sobchak, and a liberal activist, Ilya Yashin, were arrested immediately after emerging from a nearby cafe. A while later, police began arresting dozens of rank-and-file demonstrators.

The crowd was a fraction of the size of previous rallies this year, suggesting that interest may be waning. The inability of the opposition leaders and the authorities to agree on the terms for a protest permit also suggested that each side's resolve might be hardening.

By attending the rally, demonstrators showed they were unbowed by a law signed by Putin in June that imposes steep fines -- of more than $9,000 for participants and more than $18,000 for organizers -- for taking part in unsanctioned protests.

"Today we showed the authorities that we have principles and dignity, that they cannot forbid us from taking a walk in our own city, because we will come anyway," said Dmitry Gudkov, one of a handful of Russian lawmakers to support the opposition openly.

The law that increased fines is one of numerous steps Putin's government has taken to clamp down on political dissent in the year since evidence of fraud in parliamentary elections last December set off a series of large street demonstrations here.

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