MOSCOW – It was no mass protest. By their leaders’ own admission, only about 2,000 people turned out Saturday to demonstrate their opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the government did not take the “Dissenters March” lightly. It banned the rally from a landmark Pushkin Square in downtown Moscow, then massed some 9,000 police officers and Interior Ministry troops to keep the Kremlin critics away. The faceoff led to sporadic clashes across the city and a wave of arrests of activists who wanted to protest Putin’s economic and social policies as well as a series of Kremlin actions that critics say has stripped Russians of many political rights. A similar march planned for today in St. Petersburg also was banned by authorities. Police officers kept the demonstrators off the square, beating some protesters and detaining many others, including Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who has emerged as the most prominent leader of the opposition alliance. Officials said 170 people had been detained but a Kasparov aide, Marina Litvinovich, said as many as 600 were detained – although she said about half were released quickly. Kasparov, whom witnesses said was seized as he tried to lead a small group of demonstrators through lines of police ringing Pushkin Square, was freed late Saturday after he was fined $38 for participating in the rally. “It is no longer a country … where the government tries to pretend it is playing by the letter and spirit of the law,” Kasparov said outside the court building, appearing unfazed by his detention. “We now stand somewhere between Belarus and Zimbabwe,” he said. It was the fourth time in recent months that anti-Putin demonstrations – all called Dissenters Marches – have been broken up with force or smothered by a huge police presence. The weekend marches were being closely watched as a barometer of how much of a threat, if any, opposition forces pose to the Kremlin as Russia prepares for parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote next spring. Putin, whose second and last term ends in 2008, has created an obedient parliament and his government has reasserted control over major television networks, giving little air time to critics. TV newscasts on Saturday reported the protests, but gave as much or more time to a pro-Kremlin youth rally held near Moscow State University. Later, police charged into a crowd of about 200 demonstrators outside the police precinct where Kasparov was being held, beating protesters with nightsticks and fists. Kasparov and his allies mustered, by their own reckoning, about 2,000 people – far fewer than the 30,000 people who patronize the McDonald’s restaurant at Pushkin Square on an average day. But some protesters said they were not discouraged by the small turnout or intimidated by the overwhelming force marshaled to block the rally. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!