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Moscow - On the day Vladimir Putin returned to Russia's presidency, police swept through Moscow clearing streets of protesters, herding away bystanders and detaining people for just wearing white ribbons symbolising the opposition.
Fearful of a new crackdown, activists have since thrown away their banners in a change of tactics intended to get round a ban on unsanctioned rallies and avoid being detained.
A few hundred young people are now in the fifth day of a round-the-clock movement that they call “the people's stroll”, moving from one place to another about the Russian capital.
Taking a page out of the global Occupy movement, the mostly young, middle-class protesters unfurl yoga mats, sing Russian folk songs and read out passages from the constitution in the capital's leafy spaces, leaving police uncertain how to react.
“Our strategy is very simple: We are just strolling,” Alexei Navalny, a 35-year-old anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader, said before being detained by police on Tuesday morning.
Communicating by Twitter, the protesters have packed up and moved several times after police have moved in. People come and go, keeping their numbers at several hundred.
Sometimes sympathisers bring them tea or coffee. Sometimes they club together for food and drinks. They even tidy up to avoid police using the need of a clean-up as an excuse to disperse them - as happened once this week.
“We have to live here so we have to fight for a change for our children's future,” said Alexander Sherbakov, 35, an activist who works in marketing.
On Monday, a Reuters reporter heard a police chief give the order to arrest anyone wearing white ribbons, b ut police have rarely pressed charges and most were released only to rejoin the protest.
By late Thursday, the police had largely withdrawn, leaving several hundred people in a park a few blocs from the Kremlin. The sit-in has earned the unlikely name of Occupy Abai, after a Kazakh poet whose statue is located in the park.
When opposition leaders Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov were arrested and jailed on Wednesday for 15 days for disobeying police, socialite Ksenia Sobchak rallied to the cause.
Russia's answer to Paris Hilton became a champion of the new movement and railed against Putin, who worked in the 1990s for her late father, then the mayor of St Petersburg.
“When you are peacefully walking through the city in silence ... riot police should not stop you, grab you by the arms and put you away,” Sobchak, 30, told the crowd. “Our main task is to show we will not leave.”
Putin, 59, has ignored the protests that greeted his inauguration on Monday, the latest rallies since anger boiled over in December because of allegations of electoral fraud. One rally turned violent on Sunday.
Putin has said nothing in public about the protests but his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has been quoted as saying that the police had acted too softly.
“It would be wrong to overestimate the size and significance of these protests,” Peskov told the weekly Afisha magazine. In a veiled threat, he added: “There is only one end to such camps.”
On his first trip outside Moscow as president, Putin headed to a tank factory to meet a small group of pre-selected workers - a throwback to Putin's staged-managed campaign in which the Kremlin played up support from industrial centres.
The opposition has ridiculed such events, portraying Putin in satirical jokes as an out-of-touch autocrat.
Satire is one outlet for Russians angry that Putin is extending his 12-year domination of Russia.
One online caricature shows Putin inside his car smiling at pictures of crowds of supporters pasted to the windows. An outside view shows the car gliding through empty streets.
Although protesters' numbers have dropped since Putin's election victory in March, the opposition wants to show it is still a force to be reckoned with and keep up the pressure.
In protest of recent police action, a group of writers and poets plan to walk about Moscow on Sunday in what they call “a test of whether Muscovites can freely walk their own streets”.
Several tourists and other bystanders were shocked to be caught up in the police sweep in Moscow this week. “You watch television and everything seems right, good. This is some real feedback,” said Sergei, 56, tourist from Russia's Far East.
A 30-year-old protester who gave his name only as Ivan said he hoped keeping up with protests could keep Putin from winning the next presidential election to keep him in power until 2024.
“These protests cannot achieve Putin's exit, but they can accelerate his leaving power,” said Ivan, a translator. - Reuters