Some 20,000 people gathered in central Moscow on Saturday, calling for the resignation of recently re-elected president Vladimir Putin and denouncing electoral fraud. Protesters assembled in New Arbat, one of Moscow’s central streets, with flags, balloons and banners and wore white ribbons, while chanting “Russia without Putin!” and “Russia will be free!” The rally had received official approval and two helicopters buzzed above the crowd.
A police spokesman claimed that only 10,000 had attended the Saturday rally. (The photo above is from a December 24, 2011, rally.) Organizers had hoped for 50,000 to turn out. Some of the Saturday protesters attributed the smaller than hoped for numbers to fear in the wake of police clearing Pushkin Square after a demonstration on Monday and arrested hundreds.
The protest is being viewed as a “test” of whether the opposition can continue its momentum after Putin won almost 64 percent of the vote. He won two-thirds of the vote across the country except for in Moscow, where he received less than 50 percent of the votes.
The protests had begun in December due to outrage at fraud in parliamentary elections — activists used their cellphones to take photos of ballot boxes being stuffed — and anger at the possibility of Putin remaining in the presidency for perhaps 12 more years. A rally was first held in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square; 100,000 came to protest at others, with at least 120,000 attending a February 4 march in subzero temperatures. But the protest movement is “now at a crossroads,” says the New York Times:
…some participants talked about possibly joining a new political party that the billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov, who finished third in the election, has vowed to create. Others talked about pushing Mr. Putin hard to fulfill his campaign promises of government reform.
In the Guardian, opposition leader Alexey Navalny spoke of creating a “universal propaganda machine” to challenge the grip of state-run television in provincial Russia. Another organizer and journalist, Sergei Parkhomenko, spoke of pushing to return mayoral elections to Moscow; Putin had outlawed these in 2004. “Moscow is the only city in the country where Putin doesn’t have a majority: we need to capitalize on that,” Parkomenko added. The New York Times quotes 19-year-old law student Kseniya Koshymyakina, who pointed out that a ”demonstration of 5,000 people the night after the parliamentary elections had seemed huge after years of political inertia.” “The outrages continue,” she added, predicting that the protests will continue.
Historian Ilya Venyavkin said that the “protest wave is going down.” But, he also said, “the social network, that appeared during these months is here to stay.” Sergei Udaltsov of the radical socialist group Left Front has called for a protest of a million on May 1. Others have spoken of a tent encampment like that of the Occupy protests.
After a cold winter of protests, can anti-Putin activists keep their movement going into the spring and beyond?
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Photo of a December 24, 2011, rally in Moscow by mpeake