A day after Russian authorities ordered several raids on the homes of opposition leaders, a rally drew tens of thousands to the streets of Moscow to protest the third term of President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
People carried large banners and shouted "Russia Will Be Free" and "Russia without Putin" as they marched.
Monday's early morning raids, carried out by police armed with assault rifles, was seen by many as a further attempt to intimidate opposition forces and tamp down growing dissent in Russia. On Friday, Putin signed a law increasing fines for violations of public order at street demonstrations, despite warnings from his human rights council that it was an unconstitutional infringement on free assembly.
Leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov, according to Reuters, ignored his summons for questioning about violence at a rally on the eve of Putin's inauguration, and led a group of marchers carrying red flags and chanting "Putin to jail!" and "All power to the people!".
"The authorities are in a panic," Udaltsov told reporters. "They are trying to conduct primitive, repressive actions, but I am sure they'll only achieve the opposite effect. These sorts of searches annoy and outrage people, and people in even greater numbers take to the streets."
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Helmeted riot police manned metal barriers along parts of the route, but the police presence was lighter compared with some earlier protests. Ilya Ponomaryov, an opposition lawmaker, said about 60,000 to 70,000 people had turned out, much higher than the police estimate of 18,000.
After tolerating the biggest protests of his 12-year rule while seeking election, Putin has signaled a harsher approach to dissent since the start of his new term as president.
In power since 2000, Putin easily won a six-year term on March 4 after four years serving as prime minister.
His mantra of ensuring stability finds deep support among the elderly and many outside the cities, as have his strong measures against the protesters, accused by some of his backers of being spoilt urbanites financed by foreign powers.
But opposition leaders say Putin's heavy-handed tactics show that the former KGB spy is deeply worried by the protests that have undermined his once iron-clad authority.
On Friday, he signed a law increasing fines, in some cases more than 100-fold, for violations of public order at demonstrations, despite warnings from his human rights council that it was an unconstitutional infringement on free assembly.
Police and investigators raided the apartments of Udaltsov, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and socialite Ksenia Sobchak on Monday, seizing computer drives and discs, photographs and other belongings as armed guards stood outside.
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Associated Press adds:
The march was being held on Russia Day, a national holiday that honors June 12, 1990, when Russian lawmakers decided that Russian laws should take priority over Soviet Union laws. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Leftist politician Sergei Udaltsov snubbed the summons, saying he considered it his duty to lead the protest as one of its organizers. Russia's Investigative Committee said it wouldn't immediately seek his arrest but would interrogate him later.
Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navaly, liberal activist Ilya Yashin and TV host Ksenia Sobchak showed up for the interrogations, preventing them from attending the demonstration.
Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said authorities had found more than €1 million ($1.25 million) in cash at Sobchak's apartment and would initiate a check to see whether she had paid her taxes.
Sobchak, the only daughter of St. Petersburg's late mayor, a man who was Putin's mentor, had been spared reprisals until Monday's raid. "I never thought that we would slide back to such repressions," she tweeted Monday.
Braving a brief thunderstorm, protesters showed up on the landmark Pushkin Square ahead of the planned march and their numbers grew as they began marching down boulevards to a broad downtown avenue where a rally was being held. Despite fears following a violent police crackdown on a previous protest last month, the demonstration went on peacefully.
Speaking at the rally, Udaltsov reaffirmed a call for early presidential and parliamentary elections. He put the number of protesters at 100,000, while police estimated that about 20,000 showed up.
"Those in power should feel this pressure. We will protest by any means, whether peacefully or not," said Anton Maryasov, a 25-year-old postgraduate student. "If they ignore us, that would mean that bloodshed is inevitable."
Another protester, 20-year-old statistics student Anatoly Ivanyukov, said attempts by authorities to disrupt the rally would only fuel more protest. "It's like when you forbid children to do something, it makes them even more willing to do that," he said.
The police investigators' action follows the quick passage last week of a new bill that raises fines 150-fold on those who take part in unauthorized protests — fines that are nearly the average annual salary in Russia.
"I can't predict whether I'll leave here freely or in handcuffs," Yashin told reporters before entering the Investigative Committee headquarters for the interrogation. "The government is doing everything possible so that I don't end up there (at the protest)."
The top Twitter hashtag in Russia on Monday was "Welcome to the Year '37," a reference to the height of the purges under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Tuesday's protest has city approval, but any shift from the agreed upon location and timeframe could give police a pretext for a crackdown.
Udaltsov urged protesters to march across town after the rally to the Investigative Committee's headquarters to demand the release of political prisoners — an action that would likely trigger a harsh police response. However, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, speaking after him, said the demonstrators should act within the law.
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