- Associated Press - Monday, March 5, 2012

MOSCOW — Riot police on Monday were breaking up an opposition protest contesting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s victory in Russia’s presidential election and arresting dozens of participants, including prominent opposition leaders.

The police action followed a rally that drew about 20,000 protesters to Moscow’s downtown Pushkin Square to chant, “Shame!” and “Russia without Putin!”

The rally went off peacefully, but police violently dispersed several hundred protesters who attempted to stay on in the square. Hundreds of police in full riot gear moved to push the demonstrators away from the square and rounded up scores, including several protest leaders.

Trying to sustain the momentum of three months of unprecedented demonstrations against Mr. Putin’s heavy-handed 12-year rule, the opposition is pointing to a campaign slanted in his favor and reports of widespread violations in Sunday’s ballot.

Organizers said about 20,000 people showed up, far short of the crowds of 100,000 that turned out for previous rallies — but protesters were squeezed into a far smaller space on the iconic Pushkin Square, and it was too early to gauge how intense the outrage would be.

Mr. Putin won more than 63 percent of the vote, according to the nearly complete official returns, but the opposition and independent observers say the election was marred by massive fraud.

“The campaign has been unfair, cowardly and treacherous,” said opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky, who was denied registration for the race on a technicality.

International election monitors pointed to the lack of real competition and said the vote count “was assessed negatively” in almost a third of polling stations observers visited.

“There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt,” said Tonino Picula, the head of the short-term Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission. “Broadcast media was clearly biased in favor of one candidate and did not provide fair coverage of the other candidates.”

Russian observers pointed at numerous reports of “carousel voting,” in which busloads of voters were driven around to cast ballots multiple times, and various other violations, saying their number appeared to be as high as in December’s disputed parliamentary vote that kicked off the protests.

Monday’s rally was sanctioned by authorities, but security was tight, with some 12,000 police deployed to ensure order. After the demonstration was over, police detained more than a dozen people who tried to walk toward the Kremlin.

“We are going to hold new elections,” said Yevgeny Natarov, a 38-year old Moscow resident who attended the opposition protest.

“I have nothing to fear,” said Vladimir Belyayev, a 62 year-old protester who held a placard reading, “People, where is your self-dignity?”

Sergei Udaltsov, one of the organizers, urged protesters to stay on the square until Mr. Putin steps down.

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