ST. PETERSBURG - Russian riot police beat opposition activists yesterday and detained nearly 200 people at protest rallies against President Vladimir Putin a week before the country's parliamentary election.
Riot police in St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city and Putin's hometown, detained Boris Nemtsov and Nikita Belykh, leaders of the Union of Right Forces Party who are running in the Dec. 2 election. They were later released.
The protests were held a day after police detained opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov in Moscow, a move the United States condemned yesterday as part of "aggressive tactics" by authorities.
"We are troubled that Garry Kasparov and other leaders of the opposition have been arrested and detained," said White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Kasparov, leader of the Other Russia group, was among 60 detained in the 3,000-strong Moscow march, activists said.
In St. Petersburg, riot police were seen beating activists with batons and fists before forcing them into police buses.
Dozens more were detained outside the Winter Palace, the residence of the Tsars, and at another rally in the city center.
"They have forbidden us from discussing Putin," Nemtsov told the crowd. "But we have come here today to ask Mr. Putin and the authorities, why is there so much corruption in the country?"
He was promptly detained by five riot policemen as the crowd chanted "Russia without Putin."
Nemtsov told Reuters his detention was a breach of Russian law that forbids police from detaining candidates.
"Putin has total disregard for the country's constitution and laws," Nemtsov said. "He is afraid the people will find out the truth and so he hides behind the riot police."
About 500 activists made it to the marches but were vastly outnumbered by riot police. Most of those detained were later released, organizers said.
The city authorities had not given permission for the march and streets in the city center were blocked by riot police and snow-clearing trucks.
The "march of the discontented" brings together Putin's opponents into one movement which includes Other Russia, free-market parties such as Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, as well as anarchists and radical socialists.
Putin's opponents accuse the Kremlin chief of cracking down on the freedoms won after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, and of creating what they say is an unstable political system dependent on Putin alone.
"They have started a war with the people," said Tamara, a 72-year-old who took part in the march.
"Putin is very bad - look at the poverty in the country. Pensioners are forced to rummage in the dustbins."
Kremlin officials say the opposition marches are aimed at attracting attention in the West and that the activists are a mixed bag of marginal politicians with little public support.
Putin, ranked by opinion polls as the most popular politician in Russia, is credited by supporters for cementing political stability and presiding over the longest economic boom for a generation.
The former KGB spy has vowed to step down as president next year after his second consecutive four-year term in office.
But he has said he will use the pro-Kremlin United Russia party to preserve influence after he steps down.
He is running as the party's top candidate in the December election.
"We are ruled by the United Russia gang. They have taken away the elections," said Lyubov Chilipenko at the march.