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US Says Break-Up of Russian Protests Disturbing

The United States expressed concern Monday about the Russian government's crackdown on opposition demonstrators in the run-up to national elections next year. The State Department said the developments are disturbing. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The State Department says U.S. officials are closely monitoring the Russian crackdown on opposition supporters, which it calls disturbing and inconsistent with the Moscow government's stated commitment to democratic values.

The comments here came after Russian police beat peaceful anti-government protesters over the weekend in Moscow and St. Petersburg and arrested hundreds of demonstrators, including opposition figure Garry Kasparov.

The former world chess champion, among about 200 people arrested in Moscow Saturday, was released after several hours in police custody.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack noted that supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin had been allowed to stage a Moscow rally without interference on Friday.

He said action against the protesters raises questions about the ability of opposition parties to operate freely in Russia, where critical presidential and parliamentary elections are to be held next year.

"People need to be able to freely express their opinion," he said. "They need to be able to peacefully protest. They need to be able to fully participate in elections. That is at the heart of any democratic system. And the fact that there's an apparent attempt by the security services to stifle that freedom on expression, to stifle the ability of these opposition political parties to fully participate in that political process, is disturbing."

McCormack did not say whether the United States had raised its concerns about the weekend events directly with Russian officials, though curbs on the Russian opposition have been on the U.S. agenda with Kremlin leaders in the past.

In Berlin, a German government spokesman called the police crackdown unacceptable and said Germany, which currently holds the rotating European Union presidency, expects an explanation from Moscow.

Kasparov, leader of the opposition coalition Other Russia, says he and his supporters plan to step up protests in the next 12 months in advance of the elections.

The opposition charges that Mr. Putin has virtually extinguished democracy in Russia and that he plans to stage-manage the elections to prevent a free choice.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov says the protesters were dispersed Saturday when they attempted to turn a sanctioned rally into an unauthorized march through the capital.

Spokesman McCormack said here that Saturday's protest event was clearly peaceful and that opposition activists should be able to gather, to march, and to freely express their opinions.