Russian police arrested almost 300 people after flooding the centre of Moscow with hundreds of riot officers in a heavy crackdown on a planned protest on Saturday, amid a surge in popular discontent.
Barricades, police trucks and lines of baton-wielding officers sealed off streets and arrested those attempting to reach the protest, after five opposition leaders were detained on Saturday morning.
Activists had called for the rally outside of Moscow’s city hall on Saturday afternoon to protest against a decision not to allow independent candidates on the ballot papers for a local election in September, an issue that has prompted weeks of unrest and demonstrations.
Saturday’s particularly heavy handed crackdown contrasts sharply with the response to recent protests and some government U-turns in response to rallies, and suggests the Kremlin has run out of patience and is keen to stop opposition movements growing any larger.
Police blocked off road crossings and pavements leading to city hall, on one of Russia’s most important streets that leads down to the Kremlin and Red Square, and fought back against groups of chanting people attempting to push through barricades.
The country’s interior ministry said in an afternoon statement that 295 people had been “detained for disturbing public order.”
Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin had earlier warned protesters not to take part, saying that security officials believed “serious provocations are being prepared that pose a threat to the security, life and health of people”.
“Attempts at ultimatums and organising riots will not lead to anything good. Order in the city will be ensured in accordance with applicable law,” he wrote on Twitter.
Army trucks and repurposed local buses joined police vehicles around the protest site, while mess tents had also been erected to feed the hundreds of riot police stationed along the barricades.
While the September elections are of little consequence in Russia’s political structure, they have become a potent rallying call for disgruntled citizens in the capital who see the barring of candidates as an example of the unaccountability of president Vladimir Putin’s regime, which has been in power for almost two decades.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to 30 days in prison on Wednesday for calling for “unauthorised protests” and others were detained pre-emptively.
Anger over falling living standards has seen Mr Putin’s approval ratings sink to their lowest level in more than a decade, coinciding with a spike in popular protests, on issues ranging from planned landfill sites in Russia’s rural north to the prosecution of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov.