MOSCOW — Thousands of demonstrators turned out in Russia on Saturday as part of nationwide protests two days before Vladimir V. Putin’s inauguration for a fourth term as president.
In Moscow, the police clashed with protesters, turning a central square into a swirl of swinging nightsticks and shoving matches.
Protesters chanted, “Down with the czar!” And some wore paper crowns as a taunt against Mr. Putin’s lengthy rule, now extending longer than any Russian leader since Stalin.
A group that monitors arrests, OVD-Info, reported that by Saturday evening, the police had arrested 703 people in Moscow and about 1,600 throughout Russia. Among those arrested on Saturday was the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who had organized the rally, Russian news agencies reported.
The protests posed no real risk to Mr. Putin, who, polls show, remains popular with most Russians. But they illustrated that not all Russians were acquiescing to Mr. Putin’s step-by-step rollback of freedoms won after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“Russia will be free,” the crowd in Moscow chanted. “Putin is a thief,” others yelled.
“We are fed up,” Irina Shishlakova, a teacher of Russian literature, said, speaking at the rally in Moscow.” Mr. Putin had been flexing Russia’s muscles geopolitically while neglecting the well-being of people like her at home, she said. “We are tired of the pointless wars.”
Antigovernment street protests peaked in Russia in 2012, and few rallies have since drawn more than the dedicated group of several thousand of Mr. Navalny’s core supporters, mostly young people, including students.
Sociologists have noted, however, that surveys have measured a reservoir of latent discontent in the middle class in Moscow that could well up again, explaining the Kremlin’s nervousness and the heavy police presence.
“I am not happy about the corruption,” said Maksim Ivancheko, 16, who turned up wearing a sweatshirt and sunglasses. He and a group of friends were eying the riot police, trying to stay away from the clashes.
“Again we had dishonest elections,” Mr. Ivancheko said. “Putin should not have returned for another term.”
The crackdown on protests drew criticism from rights groups.
“Rather than brutally stamping out dissent, the Russian government should respect the rights to freedom of expression,” Denis Krivosheev, the deputy director for Eastern Europe at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Supporters of Mr. Navalny and the authorities reported arrests throughout Russia, from Siberia to St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, protesters at one point began building barricades to block streets near the main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospect, but were quickly arrested.
Despite crystalline spring weather, the Moscow turnout was smaller than an antigovernment rally before Mr. Putin’s inauguration in 2012, which also ended in arrests.
Within minutes of the rally’s start on Saturday, the police on loudspeakers declared it an illegal assembly. “Dear citizens, disperse,” a voice crackled. “Otherwise, force and special measures will be used.”
Riot police officers formed wedges and began thrusting into the crowd and grabbing protesters seemingly at random.
“The cosmonauts are coming!” people yelled, as the police, clad in plastic armor and glistening helmets resembling spacesuits, appeared on the edge of the crowd.
At one point, officers dragged from the crowd a man wearing regal red robes and a crown, shutting down his mocking commentary on Mr. Putin’s style of rule.
During the protest, men wearing the traditional fur hats of the Cossacks mingled among the crowd, moving in groups of a dozen or so and carrying leather whips. Pictures posted on social media showed those in Cossack attire lashing some protesters. Amnesty International condemned the whippings, saying in a statement, “on what grounds people in ‘Cossack’ uniforms were allowed to use force remains a question.”
In March, Mr. Putin won re-election for anther six-year term as president with 76 percent of the vote. He was first appointed president on Dec. 31, 1999. He was then elected in 2000 and served twice, the constitutional limit for successive terms.
Mr. Putin then moved to the prime minister position for one term, before returning to the presidency in 2012. For his third and now fourth spells as president, the term was extended from four to six years.
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