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Agence France-Presse

Russian 'Day of Anger' Rallies Tests Putin's Rule


Protesters reacts, during a anti-government rally in St. Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, March 20, 2010. Thousands of protesters rallied Saturday in several cities across Russia to protest the government's economic policy and demand more political freedoms. (Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

MOSCOW  - Thousands of protesters rallied in dozens of Russian cities on Saturday against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government as opposition groups mobilised anger over economic woes.

Riot police in Moscow massively outnumbered some 100 activists who took to the streets for an unsanctioned rally. They detained a few dozen activists and blocked the street to prevent demonstrators from marching.

"Today our movement is in solidarity with the other protests in the country where they are calling for the resignation of Putin's government. His policy during the crisis is not working!" youth activist Sergei Udaltsov told reporters shortly before being arrested.

Police also detained a handful of activists in the Russian cities of Arkhangelsk and Novosibirsk, news agencies reported.

Dubbed the "Day of Anger", the nationwide rallies are being organized by a mishmash of groups -- rights activists, the Communist Party, the opposition Solidarity movement and the Federation of Motorists -- in a bid to transform scattered discontent into something bigger.

The string of protests opened in the far east port of Vladivostok where more than a thousand protesters gathered in the snow holding placards screaming "No to Taxes" and "Enough Coddling Oligarchs at the Expense of the People!".

In Saint Petersburg, around 1,000 protesters cheered a list of demands ranging from the government's resignation to lower prices on municipal services.

"If there are no changes in Russian leadership in the near future, then our country will cease to be.

"It will collapse from corruption and bad domestic politics," Vadim Alexandrov, 43, told AFP at the Saint Petersburg rally.

Protests in Irkutsk meanwhile drew some 500 environmental activists angry at Putin's approval of the reopening of a paper mill, which is to dump waste into Lake Baikal, the world's deepest fresh water body.

Defying a ban on demonstrations in Russia's western-most city, some 500 activist wearing surgical masks held a silent protest in Kaliningrad.

The opposition has gained momentum mainly over bread-and-butter issues after the global downturn brought short a decade of growth in Russia, with recent local elections showing an ebb in support for the ruling United Russia party.

Many protesters said they were galvanized over a hike on car owners' taxes and unhappy over the government's anti-crisis policies.

"I came because I'm worried about the rising prices of electricity and gas; I have a small pension and I have to live somehow," 72-year-old Ivan, who gave only his first name, told AFP.

Authorities have used a variety of tactics to stem the protests. The opposition group Solidarity said its website hosting forums on the planned rallies was shut down Saturday by police who deemed it extremist.

Last year, the government pumped billions into supporting failing Soviet-era industries in its regions, fearing that mass layoffs amid a more than eight percent contraction in growth could snowball into wider social unrest.

The Kremlin was caught off guard in January when around 10,000 people rallied in Kaliningrad calling for the resignation of Putin and the regional governor in the largest protest since the crisis first hit Russia in 2008.

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