Police Grab Ex-Chess Champ Who Opposes Putin

Over a thousand people gathered in central Moscow today to protest against the Russian government's growing crackdown on political dissent and its increasing tendency to curb the country's newfound democracy.

The march -- banned by the Kremlin -- saw the presence of several prominent figures from the pro-democratic movement in Russia, including former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov and ex-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

Kasparov was detained by police almost as soon as the demonstration began. According to an eyewitness account published on the Russian news Website, www.gazeta.ru, Kasparov was among 20 or so activists held by police as the march began to gather pace.

"This regime is criminal; it is a police state," Kasparov shouted as police hauled him away in a van.

He was released 10 hours later by a Moscow court, which levied a $38 fine on him for "public order offences."

In all, Moscow police admitted to having arrested 170 people, though activists claimed the actual figure was in the region of several hundred.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing multiple instances of unprovoked aggression towards demonstrators, with police using batons to push people back, and dragging them into police vans when met with resistance.

Local residents pointed to the presence of several "tough-looking, plainclothed men" and "vehicles without license plates" in the side streets surrounding Turgenev Square and Pushkin Square, where the protestors had gathered.

Hundreds of people marched down the streets, chanting "Shame, disgrace" and holding up human rights pamphlets from non-governmental organisations.

The demonstration broke up an hour and a half later, when the riot police began to disperse people and push them into the Moscow subway system.

In an interview with the only remaining truly independent Russian radio station, Echo Moskvy (Echo of Moscow), former Prime Minister Kasyanov said that he "witnessed riot police openly beating people up, with no attempt to hide it."

He added that the protest was organized under the aegis of the "Other Russia" coalition, in order to "demand free and honest elections and the right to free speech."

Saturday's march came after three other demonstrations met with similar police resistance in the cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod. The "Other Russia" plan to hold another banned protest on Sunday in St Petersburg.

Although the official opposition party, the "Radical Nationalists" also led a 500-strong march today, their focus was largely nationalistic and pro-Kremlin. They were supported by the "Young Guard", a pro-government youth group: About 1,000 activists demonstrated in favor of Putin's regime near Moscow State University.

But the largest numbers belonged to the riot police, some 9,000 of whom were deployed across central Moscow in preparation for Saturday's marches.

Regulations passed recently by the Moscow city council require that all demonstrations must follow a strict rule limiting the density of protestors to one person per five square feet. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov denied any political reasoning behind the new ruling.

But the sheer number of police on the streets on Saturday underscored the high level of threat estimated by the Kremlin with regard to such "dissenters' marches."

This weekend's demonstrations are perceived as a key test of popular support for the Russian pro-democratic movement before next year's presidential elections. The relatively small numbers seen at the Moscow rally suggest that the opposition has yet to fuel public imagination and draw high levels of support.

That said, the police strength deployed across Pushkin Square and Turgenev Square may have revealed a surprising level of insecurity in the Kremlin.

President Putin enjoys the kind of approval ratings most world leaders would relish. According to a public survey conducted by the internationally respected Levada Center in February 2007, Putin's approval rating was 81 percent.

What makes the democratic opposition's task even harder is the lack of a sufficiently populist leader. Kasparov is well known in Russia and abroad for becoming the youngest-ever world chess champion in 1985. But his Jewish roots and Azeri background (he hails from Baku, Azerbaijan -- formerly a Soviet republic) make him unacceptable to the majority of Russian voters.

Other opposition figures, like Kasyanov and the exiled tycoon, Boris Berezovsky, don't have anything like the respect commanded by Putin.

Furthermore, the anti-Putin movement is racked by division. A review of the various groups operating under the "Other Russia" umbrella -- from the far-left Workers' Party to pro-western liberals like Kasparov -- suggests that the only thing uniting them is a shared opposition to Putin. And that may not be enough to make a dent in the Russian President's armour. Yet.

Putin has stated that he will not run for a third term as president in 2008. He is still to designate an official successor, but speculation favors two men -- Russian first deputy prime ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev. Both are known for their loyalty to Putin, and are unlikely to swerve from the established political course.

In the meantime, however, the presence of Kasparov, Kasyanov, and hundreds more at today's demonstration would appear to show that this fight is not over yet.

After nearly six hours of questioning, Kasparov left the courtroom, promising to appeal the guilty verdict.

Speaking to ABCNews.com, he said: "This court rejected the very presumption of my innocence. I was the one who had to prove that I was innocent, although there were no concrete allegations against me.

"Nevertheless," Kasparov said, "we consider today a victory. The outrageous behaviour of the authorities only demonstrates that we live in a police state. But we are not going to stop here. We will continue to struggle."

He added, "Although the Russian constitution clearly stipulates that every citizen has the right to speak freely, the current regime doesn't respect that right. The opinion of the average man simply doesn't count."

But for the time being, at least, the average man in Russia appears to prefer backing Putin to supporting the opposition.

Tomek Rolski contributed to this report.