- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

MOSCOW | Thousands of protesters rallied against the government in cities across Russia on Saturday, reflecting mounting anger over the nation’s economic woes.

The protests, among the largest yet, posed a challenge to the Kremlin, which faced little threat from the fragmented opposition during the years of oil-driven boom.

The largest march took place in the far eastern port of Vladivostok, where about 3,000 people denounced the Cabinet’s decision to increase tariffs on imported cars. Some shouted slogans urging Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to resign.

Many people in the region make their living from importing cars. Police, who brutally dispersed a similar protest in Vladivostok in December, did not intervene.

In Moscow, about 1,000 Communist demonstrators rallied on a central square. Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov said the government must abandon Western economic models and adopt broad nationalization. Protesters held signs reading: “Putin’s plan - Peril to Russia.”

Several hundred police officers lined the square but did not try to break up the protest, which had been sanctioned by authorities.

Across town, demonstrators from former chess champion Garry Kasparov’s United Civil Front opposition group caught police by surprise. Shouting protesters gathered at a subway station - then took a train across the city, leaving police behind.

Police detained several protesters, and activists from the Young Russia pro-Kremlin youth group brutally beat others, but several dozen demonstrators marched on a downtown street, shouting “Down with the government” and “Russia without Putin.”

“We are demanding civil freedoms and pushing for the government’s resignation,” said Valery Nadezhdin, one of the protesters. Mr. Kasparov did not take part in the march.

A small group of activists from the opposition youth group “We” protested near the headquarters of the Russian government with blank posters and their lips sealed with tape. The protest was peaceful, but police detained all the participants.

Moscow police spokesman Viktor Biryukov said a total of 41 people were detained briefly Saturday for participating in unsanctioned rallies.

Authorities sought to counter the protests with a rally of the main pro-Kremlin United Russia party next to the Kremlin - an area off-limits to other demonstrations.

United Russia staged similar rallies in several other cities across Russia. In St. Petersburg, where authorities barred opposition groups from holding rallies, individual protesters walked the streets.

The demonstrations pose a challenge for the Kremlin, which sidelined political opponents and established tight controls on the media during Mr. Putin’s eight-year presidential tenure. Many observers predict that the protests will snowball as unemployment grows, prices soar and the currency, the ruble, loses its value.

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