MOSCOW — Thousands of political protesters turned out in Moscow on Sunday, the day before Vladimir Putin's presidential inauguration, and were met with a menacing and violent police response.
The authorities showed that they were in a far less tolerant mood than they had been during antigovernment marches over the winter, as squads of police officers in riot gear made repeated forays into the taunting and defiant crowd, striking out with nightsticks and detaining more than 450 people. But the protest also indicated that despite Putin's election victory in March, the opposition isn't going away.
The street fighting casts a shadow on Putin's inauguration festivities today. In recent months, a vocal and significant opposition to his rule has emerged. But as Putin assumes the presidency for the third time, a new question arises: How violent will things get?
Plastic bottles, chunks of asphalt and red highway flares rained down on police officers after they confronted angry young members of the Left Front, who tried to break away from the main crowd and march on the Kremlin. Police later said 27 people were injured, including seven demonstrators. A photographer who fell from a roof died.
During the winter, the protests — triggered by allegations of election fraud — had been mostly law-abiding and of good cheer. But at Sunday's march, the frustration over the prospect of Putin's beckoning six-year term spilled out. And the police were ready with a more aggressive response. Later, investigators said they were opening criminal cases against some of the protest organizers.
Among those detained were three prominent opposition figures: Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front; Alexei Navalny, an anticorruption blogger; and the veteran liberal politician Boris Nemtsov. After the main rally, at Bolotnaya Square, had ended, hundreds of demonstrators marched unhindered down Ordinka Street to protest outside the police station where the three were thought to be held.