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05.07.12

Putin's Violent Crackdown

Police clash with demonstrators again in the streets of Moscow, repressing any protest over the recent elections. By Anna Nemtsova

The Russian playwright and satirist Victor Shenderovich had a simple plan: as Putin drove by, unfurl a banner declaring: "The one with power washes his face with blood."

But Shenderovich didn't make it that far.

Police arrested him with a group of other intellectuals as they gathered outside Jean-Jacques—a smoky café on Putin's motorcade route that, fittingly for this occasion, is named after Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century philosopher whose writings helped pave the way for the French Revolution.

And so instead of a banner, all Vladimir Putin saw from the window of his armored Mercedes as he rode from his country residence to Moscow to be sworn in as Russia's president—for the third time—were rows of police officers in gray uniforms patroling near-deserted streets.

Unlike his French colleague François Hollande, Putin didn't walk along the streets of the capital to greet his supporters. Instead, Putin ordered police to clear the city of any rabble-rousers, and celebrated his inauguration behind the well-guarded Kremlin walls with 3,000 carefully selected guests.

After recent events, Putin didn't want to take any chances. On Sunday at least 470 people were arrested after tens of thousands had demonstrated in Moscow against Putin, who they labeled the "thief in the Kremlin," protesting an election they believe was fixed. Hundreds more were beaten and injured. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the public that he thought the treatment of the protesters had been "soft."

On Monday the city still held its breath after opposition rallies, gas attacks, and violence when, on a balcony in Moscow, a handful of friends gathered, comparing the tally of arrested received via iPhone news feeds; they greeted one friend, just released but bloodied. "This is a new era Putin introduced even before his inauguration," said Alexander Mnatsakanian, an opposition journalist, who was limping and covering his bleeding elbow with his hand.

An impromptu plan arose: gather for coffee and brunch at Jeans-Jacques, then unfurl the banner. But police cleared out the café, marching shoulder to shoulder, pushing patrons off chairs and knocking tables over. Afterward, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov complained that his brunch ahd come to an abrupt end when police came charging in, clubbing him on the back and tearing his clothes. It was, he said, the first time in his long fight against the Putin regime when he had been so badly beaten—"and not leading a crowd but at a café table," he said

Putin didn’t want to take any chances.

One hour later, as Putin walked on the red carpet between two rows of applauding admirers at the Kremlin, police and special-security forces were taking positions around Moscow, which, on this spring morning, had become an eerily deserted city. But as the day progressed, things heated up. In spite of police trucks that kept rolling into the city, groups of young demonstrators, supporters of the anti-Putin white ribbon movement, gathered on Pushkin Boulevard—a few hundred yards from Jean-Jacques—for a street action that they called "White City."

As the patriarch of Russian Orthodox Church blessed Putin on assuming the presidency (again), the police were beating and arresting protesters, chasing them down the leafy streets wielding clubs. Even those who retreated were beaten; as were observers. Outside the Moscow Art Theater, five police officers dragged along two young men who looked about 18-years-old, beating them with clubs. When an observer yelled "Stop, they're just kids!" a police officer violently swatted her away, hitting her arm.

While Putin was feted at a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin, during which an official handed Putin the suitcase containing the nuclear button, police continued their sweep of the city, arresting at least 400 people. The New York Times reported that, once in police custody, scores of young men were referred to draft offices.

At Jean-Jacques, the group of Russian opposition activists and journalists returned during the late afternoon for drinks and ice packs to soothe their bruises. Some also had accounts to settle.

"I didn't even have a chance to pay for my coffee this morning, when police grabbed me, so I am back to pay," said the well-known Moscow poet and literature critic Lev Rubenstein, with a smile."Putin now looks weak for delegating his powers to squads of police..Look, he has already lost Moscow."