MOSCOW (Reuters) - Police detained opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, a vocal critic of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and about 20 other people on Sunday when they tried to march down a main Moscow avenue without permission.
Hours later, a potentially explosive demonstration and concert attended by Kremlin critics went off without a feared crackdown, with performers singing without microphones after police barred sound equipment from the site.
Nemtsov’s march and the concert, in defence of a Moscow-area forest threatened by development, were the latest of frequent showdowns between the government and the small but vocal groups who take to the streets to oppose it.
Shouts of “Putin — resign!” and “It’s time for a change of power” rang out at the rally and concert in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, where hundreds of police had gathered amid tension after authorities said they would not allow a concert.
More than 2,000 people attended, packing the square and cheering Yuri Shevchuk, a rock musician who has been popular since the late Soviet era and guardedly challenged Putin in a tense face-to-face meeting earlier this year.
Ekho Moskvy radio said Lev Ponomaryov, a vocal Putin critic who was among the event’s organizers, was detained, and police prevented trucks with sound equipment reaching the site but otherwise interfered little.
Analysts say the Kremlin has little to fear from such signs of discontent. Protests drawing more than a few thousand people are very rare. Putin’s choice of a candidate for the 2012 presidential vote is widely expected to win.
Some 3,000 people rallied in the Baltic coastal enclave of Kaliningrad on Saturday to demand Putin’s resignation and a return to direct elections of regional governors. The gathering was considerably smaller than a protest of 10,000 staged in the economically struggling region in January.
Moscow police detained Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, on Sunday after he and dozens of others tried to march down a main avenue without official authorisation, he told Reuters by phone from the police station where he was taken.
Marchers carried a big Russian flag at the rally on Flag Day, which honours the Russian tricolor that replaced the red hammer-and-sickle Soviet flag atop government buildings after the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse.
“It’s just beyond my comprehension. Only authorities who feel themselves to be Stalin’s successors fear their own flag,” Nemtsov said, a reference to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Flag Day was introduced by Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, and coincides roughly with the anniversary of the hardline August 1991 coup that collapsed in the face of opposition led by Yeltsin, speeding the Soviet Union’s demise.
Critics of Yeltsin’s successor Putin, president from 2000 to 2008 and still seen as holding Russia’s reins as prime minister, say he has backtracked sharply from the democracy of the Yeltsin era.
Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under Yeltsin, has been detained several times as his criticism of the Kremlin has sharpened, most recently at a July 31 rally in Moscow that was violently dispersed by police.
Kremlin critics say the constitutional right to free assembly means permission is not required. Police often detain activists who protest or march without permission.
Editing by Steve Gutterman and Ralph Boulton