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Moscow, St. Petersburg vow to flout restrictions

The ban on marching through Moscow’s center entailed the anti-government protests but police promised to respond with harsh measures Friday as grudge grew on the eve of the weekend of demonstrations in Russia’s two largest cities.

The so-called Dissenters' March - scheduled for Moscow on Saturday and St. Petersburg on Sunday - would be the fourth and fifth in a series of demonstrations that have been forcibly dispersed or heavily surrounded by riot police.

Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion who is a vociferous Kremlin critic, said march organizers had rejected a proposal by city authorities for demonstrators to gather in a single location for a meeting, rather than marching down one of Moscow's main avenues.

He said organizers sought to highlight what they say are the authoritarian policies of President Vladimir Putin's government and growing disparity between the rich and the poor in Russia.

"The Dissenters' March will clearly show that all this stability - which the Kremlin-controlled television stations trumpets, which is the bait that unfortunately the Western media have swallowed - is an illusion, an illusion that will disappear when it collides with reality," Kasparov told reporters Thursday.

"The street is the only place where the people can really express their views," he said.

Moscow police official Viktor Biryukov said more than 9,000 police and Interior Ministry officers would be on city streets, and metal police barricades were erected on the central square where the march to begin.

"I will officially state that unsanctioned acts will be dealt with by city authorities harshly, though in the framework of current law, and in the case of provocations, police will take adequate measures to prevent violations of Russian law," Biryukov was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying.

Opposition groups claim that their activists had been detained for questioning in recent days. Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, who heads a rights group that has been critical of government policies in violence-wracked Chechnya, told Ekho Moskvy radio that he and a colleague were briefly detained upon arriving in Moscow Friday.

"Everything that has happened and is happening around the Dissenters' March speaks to the weakness of the authorities and their fear," said Dmitriyevsky, whose group, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, was ordered shut down by the Supreme Court for allegedly promoting extremism.

The marches are organized by Other Russia, an umbrella group that draws together disparate opposition factions, including those of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and ultranationalist Eduard Limonov. But mainstream liberal parties have largely kept their distance. Grigory Yavlinsky, who heads the Yabloko party, refused to participate, saying in a statement Friday that "the ideological and political composition of the these actions are unacceptable for Yabloko."

Last month, organizers staged rallies in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod. Both faced tight restrictions and were ultimately quashed by riot police with dozens of people detained. In December, 2,000 people who rallied on a central Moscow square were outnumbered by a massive police contingent that recalled the military presence in Moscow's streets during the 1991 coup attempt.

In the run-up to the demonstrations, authorities increased pressure on the various groups making up Other Russia. Moscow's city council passed new tight regulations on rallies earlier this month. This week, prosecutors seized materials from Ekho Moskvy in connection with an interview given by Limonov, whose National Bolshevik Party is known for street theater and political pranks targeting Putin.

"The conflict has reached its final chapter and the consequences will be great and monstrous," Limonov said.

Since Putin took office in 2000, the Kremlin has moved to centralize power in Russia, creating an obedient parliament, abolishing direct gubernatorial elections, tightening restrictions on rights groups and presided over the reining in of non-state TV channels.