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Mass arrest of opponents at anti-Putin rallies

Clashes between police and people protesting Vladimir Putin's return to the Russian presidency have resulted in several arrests. Despite the opposition's ability to still cause a stir, their future seems bleak.

An opposition demonstration involving an estimated 20,000 protesters in Moscow erupted into a clash with police Sunday, the day before Vladimir Putin is due to be inaugurated as the country's president once again.

The brawl, which broke out after those attending the rally tried to veer off from the approved route and march on the Kremlin, resulted in more than 250 individuals being arrested. There were reports of club-wielding police officers dragging demonstrators into police vehicles, some by their hair.

"More than 250 people were detained in the center of Moscow for illegal actions," police confirmed in a statement, saying most arrests were made across the river from the Kremlin and the remainder at a smaller protest near the Bolshoi Theatre.

The demonstrators also intended to stage a "march of the million" in the country's capital and host smaller rallies in other cities on the eve of Putin's opulent inauguration ceremony inside the Kremlin, during which Putin will receive a blessing from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The hostile demonstrations were intended to rival the planned Sunday "celebration" in honor of Putin taking place at Victory Park, a landmark dedicated to Russia's defeat of Napoleon in 1812. The event is anticipated to attract 50,000 of Putin's supporters

Many Russians are angry that Putin, who previously served as president between 2000 and 2008, is returning to power after a four-year hiatus - of sorts - when he served as the country's prime minister. During that period, Russia's constitution was altered to permit Putin to serve a second two-term stint as president. He comfortably won re-election in a preisdential vote in March.

The rallies follow the initial wave of protests that gripped the country earlier in the year and were triggered by reportedly fraudulent national parliamentary elections and fear of Putin's re-election. But the turnout on Sunday was smaller than at the earlier protest marches that drew crowds estimated to be 100,000 or more.

Running out of steam

Some demonstrators admit that Putin's success in securing his return to office has been a big blow to morale for the opposition camp, though their desire to continue the protest movement is clear.

Russian protesters gather in Moscow

The turnout for the latest round of anti-Putin protests is much lower than for previous demonstrations.

"It's true that some have been disappointed," said Yuri Baranov, a 46-year-old information technology specialist. But "the most important thing is that people have awakened."

The overall direction of the opposition is unclear now that their bid stop Putin has failed. Political commentators are skeptical about the impact the movement will make on Sunday and its future.

"The time for mass demonstrations has passed in the absence of political events that can provoke mass indignation, only local issues remain," said Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Moscow-based Center for Political Information.

"I don't expect a million, that's for sure ... Not to mention that 'May-time barbecues' is a magical term that makes any attempt to hold a mass demonstration unsuccessful," he said, alluding to the fact that many Russians go on holiday at this time of year.

There were also hints in the crowd that the opposition is itself aware of its fundamental weaknesses, being a loose alliance of disparate factions with an uphill battle on its hands in trying to stage protests during the uncooperative summer season; a poster held by one demonstrator read "create a party or I'm going to the dacha," in reference to the country houses to which Muscovites love to flee during the capital's uncomfortably hot summer months.

sej/ncy (AP, AFP, Reuters)