Russian Protester 370 R.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Thomas Peter)
MOSCOW - Russian opposition leaders accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of changing tactics to crack down on dissent after riot police detained hundreds of protesters challenging the legitimacy of his presidential election victory.
Black-helmeted police hauled away more than 500 people, including several opposition leaders, who attended unsanctioned rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg on Monday or refused to disperse at the end of a rally that had been permitted.
After three months of protests that passed off peacefully, the police intervention sent a clear signal that Putin is losing patience with the opposition and will crack down if protesters step out of line.
But the restraint shown by most police, even as they bundled protesters into vans, also suggested that Putin is determined not to give his critics the chance to depict him as a dictator ready to suppress any challenge to his authority.
"The use of force and detention of opposition politicians could have been avoided," defeated presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov said in a Twitter message late on Monday.
The pattern appears clear: Putin will allow a few isolated protests, the place and time of which is agreed with the authorities, as a safety valve for disillusionment with his 12-year domination of Russia among mainly urban demonstrators.
But Putin, a former KGB spy, will do his utmost to prevent what he regards as more radical protesters undermining his return to the Kremlin for a third term as president after four years as prime minister. Dissent will be dealt with forcefully.
Independent monitoring group Golos said that, based on returns its observers had seen, Putin would have won if there had not been fraud with a bare majority of just over 50 percent. The official tally put him on almost 64 percent.