Fireworks thrown at Moscow protest

The Associated Press

MOSCOW — Police clashed with demonstrators protesting alleged election fraud in Moscow and at least two other major Russian cities on Tuesday as anger boiled over against strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party.

At least 250 people were detained by police at a protest in downtown Moscow that included fireworks thrown at a group of pro-Kremlin youth, said city police spokesman Maxim Kolosvetov.

Russian news agencies reported about 200 were arrested at a similar attempt to hold an unsanctioned rally in St. Petersburg and another 25 in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. The Moscow protest ended after around 3 1/2 hours and the others were broken up by police.

It was the second consecutive night of large protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, an unusually sustained show of indignation as Russian police routinely crack down hard on unauthorized rallies, and protesters generally take time to regroup for a new attempt.

The protests follow Sunday’s parliamentary election, in which United Russia lost a share of the seats it had held in the State Duma. The party maintains a reduced majority, but opponents say even that came because of vote fraud.

Local and international election observers reported widespread ballot-stuffing and irregularities in the vote count.

The protesters appear to be both angered by the reported fraud and energized by the vote’s show of declining support for Putin and his party, which has strongly overshadowed all other political forces in Russia for the past dozen years.

But pro-Kremlin supporters also put on a pair of large rallies in Moscow, attracting thousands and showing vehement divisions in Russian society.

The Moscow protest demonstrated the violent potential of those divisions.

Several hundred young men with emblems of United Russia had gathered with police at Triumphal Square in the city center ahead of the planned opposition rally. Police waded into several groups of opposition supporters, pushing them away from the square — roughly grabbing many and throwing them into police vehicles. Detainees included prominent opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov and Eduard Limonov.

After the protesters were pushed back, they and government supporters shouted at each other — “Shame, shame” was the call from the opposition, while the others, some of whom beat drums, shouted “Putin victory.” Members of the pro-authorities group gravitated toward the nearby Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, continuing to chant and bang drums. Then at least two flare-type fireworks were thrown into their midst.

It was unclear who threw the devices or if anyone was injured. The confrontation lasted more than three hours before pro-government youth began leaving.

About a half-mile away, around 100 demonstrators chanting against Putin held a short march from the U.S. Embassy toward the Russian White House, but scattered when police arrived.

A heavy police presence was visible throughout the city, including several police trucks parked around Pushkin Square, another popular demonstration site.

United Russia won slightly less than 50 percent of Sunday’s vote, according to nearly complete preliminary results. Although that gives the party an absolute majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, it is a significant drop from the 2007 election when the party got a two-thirds majority, enough to change the constitution unchallenged.

Sunday’s election results reflect public fatigue with Putin’s authoritarian streak and with official corruption in Russia, signaling that his return to the presidency in next March’s election may not be as trouble-free as he expected.

Putin, meanwhile, called his party’s reduced number of seats in Sunday’s parliamentary election an “inevitable” result of voters always being dissatisfied with the party in power. He also dismissed allegations of corruption among his United Russia party members.