Massive protests have been a hallmark of recent G8 summits, but this weekend the Russian government appears to have broken the tradition by using security forces to discourage demonstrators.
Scuffles broke out on a main boulevard Saturday in downtown St. Petersburg as armoured riot police pushed back protesters who defied a ban on marching through the streets. Amid the shoving and screaming, plainclothes security officers grabbed several protesters and bundled them into old busses.
The police action continued today, as organizers said 36 people -- including British, German, Polish, and Ukrainian citizens -- were detained after they sat down on a major road holding signs that said "No G8!"
But the protests have been small, and usually contained to a few sites in St. Petersburg, more than 20 kilometres from the Peterhof palace complex where leaders and journalists are gathering.
The largest gathering of anti-G8 protesters happened on Friday, as an estimated 500 people gathered for a social forum at one of the few spots where protests were permitted: Kirov stadium, on the edge of the city.
"The organizers of the forum have expected about a thousand participants, but they registered about 500," said Vlad Tupikin, a Moscow journalist and anti-globalization activist. "This was not accidental. An operation code-named Shield is conducted throughout the country. People going to the forum are taken off the trains."
Organizers estimated that 200 people were arrested as they travelled to St. Petersburg last week. The Libertaries Information and News Collective, an anti-G8 group, said it had also documented cases of people being intimidated into cancelling their plans to visit the city; protesters forced to give up their train tickets to St. Petersburg; activists' homes being searched; and their property confiscated.
Still, roughly 250 protesters showed up for an authorized protest at a central square on Saturday morning. They shouted slogans like "Down with the police state," "Russia without Putin," and "We Want A Different Russia."
When the protesters tried to leave the permitted zone, they were blocked by a much larger force of riot police. Fights broke out as demonstrators tried to break through the cordon.
Today's demonstrations were even smaller, with at least four small actions scattered across the city -- three of them ending with detentions by police.