Opposition’s rally will test Putin’s protest crackdown

President understands only ‘the language of force,’ activist says

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Although he was denied the majority in Moscow, Mr. Putin won the election to return to the Kremlin post he had held from 2000 to 2008 before moving into the prime minister’s office to avoid violating a constitutional ban on more than two consecutive terms.

With the election over, the protest movement seemed to fade.

But on the eve of Mr. Putin’s inauguration, an opposition march and rally drew tens of thousands, far more than either the organizers or the police had expected. The demonstration turned violent after police restricted access to the square where the rally was to be held.

Bottles and pieces of asphalt were hurled at police, who struck back by beating protesters with truncheons and detaining more than 400. Some demonstrators were dragged away by their hair.

Opposition leaders claim the clash was provoked by pro-Kremlin thugs.

Anti-‘Occupy’ strategy

In the days that followed, police chased opposition activists around the city, detaining hundreds.

Then the crackdown eased, as the authorities allowed the opposition to set up camp on a leafy boulevard.

But there were strings attached: The organizers could not put up placards or make political demands, since that technically would turn the camp into an unsanctioned protest.

Authorities tolerated the camp for about a week before getting a court to rule that the activists were creating a mess in the neighborhood, giving police the legal right to disperse them.

The anti-protest legislation also would provide police with new powers against such Occupy-style camps. “Large-scale public gatherings” could be banned and the organizers fined if they disrupt public order.

In a Levada poll released Thursday, 65 percent of respondents said they expect the protests to continue, although they differed on how likely the protests were to intensify or spread.

The poll, conducted May 25 to 29 of 1,604 people across Russia, has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

The bill was rushed through the Kremlin-controlled parliament last week in an effort to get it in place before Tuesday’s big protest.

Some opposition leaders held out hope that Mr. Putin would refuse to sign it. Others, however, said they had no illusions, pointing to a comment by Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov after the violence on the eve of the inauguration.

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