MOSCOW – Riot police wielding truncheons detained hundreds of ultranationalists who were among several thousand who took to the streets Saturday in defiance of a ban, acting forcefully amid a rising wave of anti-foreigner sentiment in Russia.
Some 2,000 ultranationalists rallied at a central Moscow square, proclaiming the superiority of ethnic Russians, some waving the flags of radical political parties and clutching religious icons. Many stretched out their hands in a Nazi-type salute.
Several hundred police — some in black helmets and carrying truncheons — surrounded the square, taking tough action in contrast to a year ago, when several thousand far-right activists marched unhindered through Moscow, many giving the Nazi salute and shouting: "Heil Hitler."
Rights groups, however, warned that detentions alone would not combat the rise in hate crimes in Russia, where attacks on foreigners, Jews and immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus are on the rise.
This year, 39 people have been killed in apparent hate crimes and a further 308 attacked, according to the Sova human rights center, which monitors xenophobia.
Demonstrators complained about dark-skinned migrants from other former Soviet republics, whom they derisively refer to as "blacks."
"I came here to remember that I am also a Russian man. I live well, I earn well, I have a family, but the blacks, they spoil my life," said Pavel, 32, who withheld his last name, fearing arrest.
"Don't confuse German fascists with Russian patriots," said a banner held up by a young man with close-cropped hair.
In Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, police broke up a fist fight involving several hundred far-right activists and antifascists. They detained dozens of ultranationalists for participating in a banned rally there, as well as a number of their leftist opponents, Interfax reported.
Police on one Moscow street encircled groups of young men and hauled them off into buses, said Lidia Mikhailova, a spokeswoman for nationalist politician Dmitry Rogozin, who was involved in organizing the rally.
Mikhailova told The Associated Press that she saw dozens detained in this way and, citing other witnesses, estimated that several hundred people were taken into police custody.
The Interfax news agency quoted a law enforcement source as saying that police detained more than 200 activists. A police desk officer in Moscow, who refused to give his name, denied there were arrests.
Alexander Belov, chief organizer of the ultranationalist marches, told the AP that demonstrations took place in more than 20 cities — including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Krasnodar in southern Russia, Blagoveshchensk in the Russian Far East and the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.
The decision by authorities to prevent the far-right supporters from marching signified an effort to dispel accusations that the government is doing little to combat the rising wave of xenophobia.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov forbade Saturday's procession, saying that ultranationalists had used the Nov. 4 Day of People's Unity last year to express disturbing extremist views.
Rights activists warned, however, that a lot more had to be done to stem the growing racism. "A systematic response is not just one event but regularly prosecuting people for what they should be prosecuted," said Alexander Verkhovsky of Sova.
Critics say President Vladimir Putin's call last month to "protect the interests of ... the indigenous population" at outdoor markets as well as a crackdown on Georgian workers here following a spy dispute with Russia's small southern neighbor has only fueled ethnic tensions.
Meanwhile, liberal politicians and rights groups held an authorized counter-rally in Moscow to protest the rise of xenophobia and to promote tolerance. About 500 people gathered holding flags with the words "Russian Anti-Fascist Front" and banners that read: "I am Russian and therefore not a fascist."
The political and economic turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union generated hostility toward foreigners, especially the millions of migrant workers, among a large section of society.
The trend has worsened in recent years, despite a rise in incomes and political stability, with authorities failing to crack down on hate crimes and extremist groups and literature.