MOSCOW/SAMARA, Russia (Reuters) - About 200 anti-Kremlin protesters demonstrated on Friday in a city not far from a Russia-EU summit, after police prevented their leaders including chess champion Garry Kasparov from flying there.
About 20 opposition protesters led by Kasparov had hoped to join a rally in Samara, a Volga River city 1,000 km (600 miles) southeast of Moscow and 70 km (40 miles) from the summit venue.
“When I tried to register for the flight, airport workers told me they could not get my ticket through their computer system,” Kasparov told Reuters at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. “It’s obvious there was an order from above.”
Captain Alexander Adamov, in charge of the airport police, told Reuters: “Our computer does not recognise ... (Kasparov and his group’s) tickets.”
Airport officials prevented a Reuters Television camerawoman from filming Kasparov’s troubles inside the airport, saying shooting inside the airport was forbidden.
Deputy Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on the sidelines of the EU summit there had been no foul play by authorities and denied that the issue would cloud the summit.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Samara for the summit, took Russia to task. “All of those who want to stage a rally in Samara should be able to do so,” she told journalists.
Kasparov likened the situation in Russia to that in Zimbabwe or Moscow’s post-Soviet ally Belarus, both seen by the West as among the world’s least democratic countries.
A group of the Kremlin-backed Nashi youth group appeared at the airport and jeered at Kasparov’s stranded delegation.
The protesters in Samara marched about a kilometre (mile) through the city centre unhindered by traffic as all roads had been closed. They shouted “Russia without Putin” and “We need a different Russia”. There were no clashes with police.
The organisers of the march have said police detained and questioned many of their activists in an intimidation campaign in the weeks leading up to the protest.
On Friday, two foreign journalists intending to fly to Samara were also stranded in the Moscow airport, their tickets and passports held by airport officials after “not being recognised” by airport computers.
The opposition planned its rally during Friday’s meeting between President Vladimir Putin and top European Union officials to attract wider public attention to what it sees as Russia’s backtracking on its democratic pledges under Putin.
Additional reporting by Conor Sweeney and Alexander Reshetnikov in Samara