Russian marchers mark bloody anti-Putin protest

Laetitia Peron
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Police officers carry an anti-Putin protester who was detained in central Moscow, on May 7, 2012

Police officers carry an anti-Putin protester, who was detained in central Moscow, on May 7, 2012. Thousands of Muscovites were due to rally Sunday in commemoration of a bloody protest one year ago in which more than 400 were detained after showing their frustration with Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency

About a thousand Muscovites rallied Sunday in memory of a bloody protest one year ago in which more than 400 were detained after showing their frustration with Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency.

The "Spring March of Freedom" was held almost a year to the day since Russian authorities deployed baton-wielding interior ministry troops to disperse a crowd of tens of thousands on the eve of Putin's May 7 swearing-in ceremony.

Dozens of demonstrators and several police officers ended up in hospital in the ensuing clashes.

More than two dozen people now face years in prison on disturbance of order charges. Several have been jailed already.

"I came out to protest against the dictatorship that was installed under the Putin regime and against the political repressions," a Muscovite named Oleg said as people of all ages around him unfurled banners reading "Freedom to political prisoners" under the heavy grey sky.

But the protest movement has grown fractured since its heyday in the winter of 2011-2012 -- a time when discontent was at a peak over what were seen as stacked December 2011 parliamentary elections and Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin after completing two terms in 2000-2008.

Activists can now barely agree on how they should proceed or reconcile views that range from the far left -- some even openly embracing the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin -- to those who support a Western-style democracy.

Those fissures were embarrassingly laid bare when opposition leaders failed to agree on a date to mark the first anniversary of the now infamous protest.

A much smaller group marched on Sunday instead of the actual anniversary Monday because they believed that most of its supporters work during the week.

"I am disappointed with the numbers -- I thought there would be more people," said a 39-year-old woman who identified herself only as Marina.

"The opposition has grown more quiet," she said.

The thousand or so people in attendance were surrounded by what Moscow city authorities said was a police presence of 4,000 officers.

Yet a much larger section of the protest movement that includes opposition figureheads such as the corruption fighter Alexei Navalny and novelist Boris Akunin decided to go ahead with their Monday event.

Observers say large numbers are expected then amid growing anger over a widening crackdown on dissenting voices in the country.

Putin's thumping March 2012 presidential victory with 63.6 percent of the vote at first seemed to take all the air out of the opposition movement.

Some decided to abandon periodic demonstrations altogether in favour of a focus on municipal elections through which they could build their ranks from the bottom up.

But Putin -- an ex-KGB spy who spars often with the West and supports a strictly hierarchical political system for Russia in which all major decisions are made by the Kremlin -- has once against shown his authoritative streak.

He has openly blamed the winter demonstrations before his election on funding from the United States.

That message has been echoed in this year's campaign against non-governmental organisations that receive funding from the West.

These groups will now be forced to declare themselves as "foreign agents" -- a derogatory term that in Russian essentially means the group is run by spies.

The authorities have also opened a series of trials against opposition leaders that could land people such as the popular Navalny -- by far the most dangerous figure from the Kremlin's perspective -- behind bars for 10 years.

And even neutral observers were dismayed by Moscow's decision to ban the adoption of Russian children by American families that followed Washington's denial of entry to 18 Russians for alleged human rights abuses.

"We demand changes in the constitution that forbid the same person from serving more than two terms as president," veteran opposition member and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov wrote on the Moscow Echo radio website.