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Russia Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny Arrested Amid Anti-Putin Protests

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin will be inaugurated for a fourth term in office on Monday following a landslide election victory in March. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was barred from running, called on his supporters today to protest Putin's 18 years in power.

NPR's Lucian Kim reports from the streets of Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Russian).

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hundreds of protesters crowded into Pushkin Square less than a mile from the Kremlin, shouting, Putin is a thief and down with the Tsar. Alexei Navalny, who had called for nationwide protests, was arrested shortly after arriving on the scene. But his supporters ignored a heavy police presence to show their opposition to the government. Pavel Murkin, a high school student and Navalny campaigner, came all the way from Siberia to join the Moscow rally.

PAVEL MURKIN: (Speaking in Russian).

KIM: "The government is restricting our freedom," he said, "and we're against that." A black helicopter hovered over the square, drowning out the chants of protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

KIM: As riot police closed in, an officer told the protesters their rally was illegal and they had to disperse.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Over loudspeaker, speaking in Russian).

KIM: Yevgeny Tikhenko, one of the protesters, scoffed.

YEVGENY TIKHENKO: (Through interpreter) We don't hold illegal rallies. They're all legal. We informed the authorities, and we have the right to assemble here. What's illegal is the guys in uniform arresting people. That's illegal.

KIM: Tikhenko, 39, works as a welder in Moscow. He said it was a stereotype that only the Russian middle class opposes Putin.

TIKHENKO: (Through interpreter) I know a lot of people who used to support Putin. But, in view of what's going on in the country, they're starting to see what kind of miscreants are in power.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

KIM: Before long, riot police were hauling off demonstrators to waiting buses. Activists said more than 1,500 people were arrested at rallies in two dozen cities, most of them in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the Volga River town of Saratov, local media reported that a 12-year-old boy was briefly detained by police. In six years, he'll be old enough to vote, and Putin will be ineligible to run for another term.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.