Russian police have arrested top opposition figures during a protest march in Moscow on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as president.
The march by about 20,000 people to an island adjacent to the Kremlin proceeded peacefully on Sunday afternoon until a small group tried to break off and cross a bridge across the Moscow river, which was blocked by police.
As more people crowded toward the bridge, police sent reinforcements to the cordon, pushed demonstrators back to the rally site and began seizing demonstrators.
Opposition leaders including Sergei Udaltsov, Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov were detained, along with more than 200 other demonstrators.
Protesters had marched under banners and flags, chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Putin – thief” – a day before a lavish inauguration inside the Kremlin at which the head of the Russian Orthodox Church will bless Mr Putin.
Many of the protesters are angry that Mr Putin is extending his 12-year domination of Russia, despite being undermined by large protests from December to March, and fear he will stifle political and economic reform in his third term as president.
“History shows that if one person rules for a long time, especially using the methods of a dictator, nothing good comes of it for the country,” said one 85-year-old World War II veteran.
Andrey Asianov, 44, added: “I trusted Putin as long as he ruled within the bounds of the constitution but our law limits the presidency to two consecutive terms. He and his clown (outgoing President Dmitry) Medvedev spat on that.”
Although some remain angry, the sting has gone out of protests since Mr Putin was elected to his third term as president of the world’s largest country and biggest energy producer, with almost 64% of the vote in the March 4 presidential election.
Opposition groups had hoped to stage a “march of a million” but blamed a lack of big protest crowds on the departure of many city dwellers for the countryside as Sunday was the start of a national holiday lasting until May 10.
The Moscow protest was also marred by the death of a photographer who Itar-Tass news said fell from a balcony as he tried to take pictures of the rally on a square across the river from the Kremlin.
Mr Putin, a former KGB spy, simply ignored the protests. He looked relaxed as he attended a religious ceremony led by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill that marked the transfer of a revered icon from a museum into the hands of the Church.
Mr Putin, 59, has dismissed allegations that widespread fraud helped him win the presidential election and secured victory for his United Russia party in a parliamentary poll in December, but the opposition says he was illegitimately elected.