2,000 demonstrators defy Kremlin to march in Moscow's streets as opposition leader Garry K
Riot police officers detain a demonstrator who is among opposition activists and supporters of Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov, gathered outside a district police station where Kasparov was taken after being detained in Moscow. Photograph: Ivan Sekretarev/AP
There were pensioners clutching single roses, students wearing jeans and a young man weaving through Moscow's anarchic traffic on a chopper bike.
Ranged against them were 9,000 riot police wielding truncheons and the might of the Russian state. And yet for one moment yesterday the demonstrators got the better of their opponents. After surging down the Boulevard Ring, the protesters began a defiant chant: 'Russia without Putin: Russia without Putin.' The sun burst on to a freezing Moscow morning. There was, it seemed, a whiff of revolution in the air.
'We don't agree, we don't agree,' the protesters chanted, waving flags and blocking the boulevard. 'This is our city', 'Revolution', 'Down with KGB informers'. A man held up a placard: 'I don't believe in Putin.' Others called for Russia's President to resign and go skiing.
After seven years in which he has restored Kremlin control over most areas of Russian life with scarcely a murmur of protest, Vladimir Putin was yesterday confronted with a genuine popular revolt. About 2,000 opposition demonstrators gathered in Pushkin Square, defying an official ban on their meeting and threats of arrest. It was the largest-ever anti-Putin rally in the Russian capital.
The man who was supposed to lead it, Garry Kasparov - Russia's former world chess champion - was detained as soon as he emerged from his taxi. Driven off to a Moscow court in a police van, he emerged defiant, during a break in proceedings, to tell about a dozen supporters that in its response to the protest 'the régime showed its true colours'. He was later fined 1,000 roubles - the equivalent of about £20 - and freed.
Moscow city authorities had refused to give permission for the march, claiming that a pro-Kremlin youth group had already booked the square.
'I'm from three generations of Muscovites. I've never seen these sorts of things happen, even in the Soviet Union,' Galena Ivanovna, 68, said, as riot police arrested several young protesters and dragged them away. 'There is zero democracy in Russia. Our television is for zombies.'
The marchers tramped through the centre of Moscow. The riot police finally caught up with them on a narrow strip of grass, arresting dozens.
'This is a peaceful demonstration,' opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov - one of a handful of independent MPs left in the Duma - said as he walked with the marchers. 'What is happening here is absolutely anti-constitutional.'
Why had the Kremlin sent so many riot police to crush a small demonstration made up of old ladies and students? 'I think this is paranoia after what happened in Ukraine.'
Although Putin remains broadly popular in Russia, yesterday's protests appeared to suggest resistance to his rule is growing. Under the constitution, he is obliged to leave office in March 2008, after two terms. The Kremlin is grappling with the problem of who will lead Russia when he steps down.
It is also reeling after a bad week in which Boris Berezovsky - Moscow's least favourite Russian tycoon-in-exile - revealed that he was plotting a coup against Putin. Russia has again demanded Berezovsky's extradition, saying that, by calling for the overthrow of a sovereign state, he has breached his British asylum status.
Currently there appear to be two candidates to succeed Putin - Sergei Ivanov, Russia's hawkish former Defence Minister, and Dmitry Medvedev, the First Deputy Prime Minister. Both are unflaggingly loyal Putin proteges. The Kremlin is constructing an artificial 'race' between the two insiders, while also micro-managing the election process to ensure that opposition parties win no seats at all in December's Duma elections. Numerous changes to Russia's electoral law have meant that popular independent local candidates cannot stand again as MPs. The Kremlin has also invented a fake Social Democrat-style 'opposition' party - A Just Russia - to siphon votes away from the communists and nationalists.
All this is done with one goal, critics say: to snuff out the possibility of the kind of pro-western Orange Revolution that shook Ukraine and Georgia. Few think this is likely, but the levels of paranoia inside the Kremlin are hard to overstate. And yet Russia's tiny opposition movement appears to be slowly gathering momentum. After the chaos of the Yeltsin years, most Russians welcomed the stability that Putin delivered. Now, however, there is growing resentment - at bureaucratic corruption; at the growing gap between rich and poor; over what appears on state-controlled TV and reality; and at the lack of genuine democratic choice.
'People see that the division between the poor and the rich is getting bigger,' Kasparov told The Observer two days before the protest. 'People are disillusioned. There is little understanding of what the future will bring.'
As well as rolling back democracy, Putin's government has failed to distribute equitably the proceeds of Russia's oil and gas wealth, Kasparov argues. 'The Kremlin has created a situation where 10 to 15 per cent of the population is connected to the resources, and everyone else is becoming worse off.'
Kasparov leads his own opposition party, the United Civil Front, and admits he is concerned for his safety: 'I don't use Aeroflot. I don't eat or drink when flying. It might sound like paranoia, but it's better to be paranoid than dead.'
As well as Kasparov's party, the coalition that organised yesterday's protests - The Other Russia - includes the National Bolsheviks and the Popular Democratic Union, headed by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Kasyanov fell out with Putin in 2004 and reinvented himself as a champion of democracy. The Kremlin responded by depriving him of his dacha. Kasyanov is likely to emerge as the opposition's united candidate next year.
Not that he stands much chance against the Kremlin's election machine. Few analysts believe that anybody but Putin's preferred successor will win. Kasparov is more optimistic - but describes himself as merely a 'pawn' in a complicated chess game that will eventually see the current regime crumble: 'I'm not a player, I'm just a piece. The most important thing is to win the game.'
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