The searches, which police launched at the apartments of opposition leaders early in the morning, were a new sign Putin is shifting to more aggressive tactics to quash protests as he starts a six-year term.
Putin signed a law last Friday that increased fines for violations of public order at street demonstrations, ignoring warnings from his human rights council that it was unconstitutional. Putin’s opponents said the law was an attempt to silence dissent.
Russia’s main investigation agency said it planned to conduct about 10 searches in connection with a criminal probe into violence against police at a protest held in Moscow on the eve of Putin’s inauguration on May 7.
Opposition leaders Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov were among those whose Moscow apartments were being searched, the Federal Investigative Committee said. Television presenter Ksenia Sobchak and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov were also among those targeted, activists said.
“There’s a search going on at my home,” Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and one of the organisers of protests sparked by allegations of fraud in a December parliamentary election won by Putin’s party, said on Twitter.
“They practically cut out the door,” Navalny tweeted, later adding that police had confiscated the electronics in his home “including discs with the children’s photos”.
Other members of the opposition said the raids were a sign that Putin had given up on democracy.
“Putin has stopped even imitating democracy,” Sergei Mitrokhin, a liberal opposition leader, said on Ekho Moskvy.
Dozens expressed anger over the move on the internet, which the opposition has used to organise the mass protests that have threatened Putin’s authority, bypassing a compliant television media that is under tight state control.
Opposition leaders have permission for a march and rally in central Moscow, a test of their ability to maintain pressure on Putin through protests despite the new law increasing fines for protests which could reach as much as 300,000 roubles (€7,400) for participants and 1m roubles for organisers.
Putin won a six-year presidential term in March despite a wave of protests which drew tens of thousands of people to the streets, particularly middle-class city dwellers.
Opposition activists vowed to press ahead with plans for the protest. “These madly repressive measures are meant to frighten people,” activist Sergei Davidis said on Ekho Moskvy, adding the protest would go ahead as planned.