Protesters chanted and held up banners, some reading 'Death to Kremlin invaders!' [AFP]

Russian riot police have arrested dozens of people in Moscow and Saint Petersburg who tried to stage unsanctioned anti-government protests on New Year's Eve.

The show of police force marked the first time the authorities have cracked down on members of the Russian opposition since allowing two massive rallies on December 10 and December 24.

The protest was organised by the "Strategy 31" movement, which since 2009 has staged rallies to mark the right to
peaceful assembly guaranteed in Article 31 of the constitution.

They gather on the final day of every month with 31 days.

Chants of "Russia without Putin" and "We need another Russia" rang out at both events on Saturday.

Moscow police said about 200 people took part in the rally around the central Triumfalnaya Square, with 60 detained.

Gathering in near-freezing temperatures at the major thoroughfare in the capital, many protesters wore the white ribbon that has become a symbol of an ongoing protest against parliamentary elections won by Vladimir Putin's, the prime minister, ruling party in December.

In Saint Petersburg, a correspondent for the AFP news agency saw a dozen more people roughly rounded up by helmeted crack troops. The city's police reported about 10 arrests at the protest which attracted about 100 people.

Russia's Echo Moskvy radio also reported that about 200 people, including Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, participated in a rally in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod that went off without incident.

Putin has faced massive demonstrations following the December 4 election that protesters and international
observers said was marked by fraud and violations.

Despite the mounting pressure, Putin is expected to comfortably win a presidential election in March and return to the Kremlin.

'Inevitable cost of democracy'

Speaking in a televised New Year's Eve address earlier on Saturday, Putin said: "Of course, I want to wish all of our citizens, independent of their political leanings - those who sympathise with the forces of the left, and those on the right, those on top and those below, as you like - I want to wish everyone happiness and prosperity."

Putin made a passing nod to political tensions but said they were "the inevitable cost of democracy," especially in election time.

"At such times, politicians always try to manipulate the voters' feelings, everything is a little shaken up and seething,
but that is the inevitable cost of democracy. There's nothing unusual here," he said.

In Moscow, police and other law enforcement officers were deployed in the Triumfalnaya Square area well before the protest began at 5pm, their buses and vans lining the streets surrounding the area.

"Strategy 31" rallies do not enjoy official approval, and participants are subject to arrest. Among those detained on
Saturday was National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov, Russian media reported.

Those arrested were mostly brought out on the street by Limonov, who had been detained on other occasions following unsanctioned end-of-month events.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran Russian human rights activist and leader of the Moscow Helsinki group, described the arrests as "shameful and stupid".

"Our authorities have to understand that the era of breaking up meetings has come to an end," she told the Interfax news agency.

Source: Agencies