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Police clashed with anti-Kremlin demonstrators and detained more than 100 in the second consecutive day of harsh actions against protesters who claim Russian President Vladimir Putin's government is smothering democracy.
The weekend clashes in Moscow and St. Petersburg appear to prefigure a long period of confrontation between authorities and the opposition as Russia approaches parliamentary and presidential elections.
The authorities can call on huge contingents of police and interior ministry troops - some 9,000 were on duty for the Moscow protest. They also control much of the television news that is a prime source of information in the sprawling country.
But the opposition, although it has drawn only a few thousand people to its rallies, claims it is bolstered by a growing sense of disgust among citizens and is determined to push forward.
Although police far outnumbered the demonstrators in Moscow, opposition leader Garry Kasparov said the fact that about 2,000 turned out at all was "truly amazing."
"It shows that the apathy in Russian society is gradually being replaced by very active, vocal protest," he told The Associated Press. Kasparov, a former world chess champion, has become the most prominent figure of the opposition forces that are loosely allied under the umbrella Other Russia.
Many ordinary Russians appeared dismayed by the harsh police crackdown. As an elderly woman comforted a bleeding youth who lay on the ground after the St. Petersburg clashes Sunday, a passer-by remarked bitterly, "So this is what they call democracy."
However, most Russians may learn little about the demonstrations if they rely on television. State TV channel Rossiya on Sunday showed only brief footage of the Moscow protest - after opening with a report on Putin attending a martial-arts match. It showed comments from Kasparov, then immediately segued into recent official complaints about a US State Department report that criticized Russia's human rights and political climate.
St. Petersburg authorities gave permission for the protest rally, but took extensive measures to keep it under tight control. Riot police ringed the square, a helicopter hovered overhead and hundreds of riot officers waited in trucks and buses lining nearby streets.
After the 90-minute rally, riot police clashed with groups of demonstrators making their way to a nearby subway station.
They first attacked a group including Sergei Gulyayev, a former independent-minded member of the city council, beating him and several others severely. Sporadic clashes continued for about an hour, with police charging groups of people young and old and clubbing those in their way.
It was not clear what provoked the clashes. The opposition initially had called for a march after the rally to the city government headquarters, but authorities banned that action.
Several of the rally's organizers were detained, at least one of them before the event started. Police said some 120 people were detained.
Eduard Limonov, head of the banned National Bolshevik Party and widely known for his novels and provocative sense of political theater, was arrested, according to his local party chief Andrei Dmitriyev, who said he was beaten himself and detained for a few hours. Olga Kunosova, the local head of Kasparov's United Civil Front, said police grabbed her as she left her home to go to the rally; she and Dmitriyev both said they were released after paying fines.
Police detained about 170 at the Saturday Moscow demonstration including Kasparov, who was released about 11 hours later after paying a 1,000-ruble (US$38, â‚¬29) fine.
Opposition leaders warn that Putin's government is shooting itself in the foot with the harsh police tactics, saying they feed widespread distrust of the authorities.
Older people were substantial contingents in both demonstrations, many of them dismayed at having to live on miserly pensions as prices soar in Russia's oil-driven economic boom.
Putin, whose second and last term ends in 2008, has created an obedient parliament, and the government has reasserted control over major television networks, giving little air time to its critics.
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