In the first major protest since President Vladimir Putin began a new six-year term May 7, Muscovites of all ages and political convictions flooded the city center, chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Enough of KGB rule.”
Protest organizers estimated the turnout at more than 100,000, but police, known for downplaying participation, said it was about 18,000.
The event was dubbed the “March of Millions” to symbolize the wave of discontent that has enveloped Russia’s largest cities since rigged parliamentary elections in December.
Huge new fines face protestors
The event passed peacefully – though not without roiling anger – owing largely to a new law ramrodded through Parliament last week levying a $9,000 fine for individuals who participate in rallies that cause harm to people or property, said Alexander Nikitin, Chairman of the Environment and Right Center (ERC) Bellona in St. Petersburg.
Photo: Alyona Popova via Twitter
This is a devastating penalty in a country whose average yearly salary is around $8,500.
Protests the day before Putin’s inauguration on May 7 dissolved into mayhem. Hundreds were beaten and arrested, only to be rearrested later after they had been turned loose due to overcrowded jail cells.
Those demonstrations continued in a loosely organized fashion for days following with ‘Occupy’-type protest camps springing up in Moscow and many other large Russia cities, only to be put down by OMON riot police.
It is uncertain who drew first blood on May 6. Demonstrators blame police and police blame the opposition. But at some point, as the demonstrations dragged on to May 8, police finally gave up on arrests.
Fines Kremlin’s new nuclear truncheon
Nikitin called the new fine the Kremlin’s “nuclear truncheon” against dissent, but noted that it still remained unclear how the new law would be applied.
“There were no outbreaks of violence because people were behaving because of the new law,” he said.
“How the authorities will now enforce that law is unclear – they can’t punish everyone, but the government seems to be waiting to use this ‘nuclear truncheon.’”
A spokesman for the Moscow riot police OMON confirmed in an email interview with Bellona Wednesday that no arrests or fines were reported.
It was clear from the number of demonstrators in attendance, however, that the population had been angered by the highly publicized raids on homes of several opposition leaders the day before the rallies.
Intimidation of oppositon
The leaders were served summonses for police questioning one hour ahead of the rallies in a clumsily-concealed effort to prevent their attendance.
Among those who were summoned and whose houses were ransacked and whose property was confiscated were defecto leader of the ad-hoc opposition moment, Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov; anti-Putin blogger and corruption muckraker Alexei Navalny; liberal organizer Ilya Yashin, and Ksenia Sobchak, a well known TV presenter and daughter of Putin’s late mentor and St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak who has joined the opposition movement.
Amnesty International later condemned the searches as politically motivated
All but Udaltsov heeded their summonses and were let go briefly after they were ordered to appear at police precincts at noon yesterday.
Udaltsov was served another summons while speaking on stage with another prominent opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. Udaltsov is to appear for questioning today.
Moscow’s central Pushkin Square, the starting point, was a sea of colors as marchers clutched flags, posters and wet-weather gear as downpours continued throughout the day.
But, like other protests that have been ongoing since December, the huge crowd represented a panoramic range of political views, and in a few cases some demonstrators seemed only mildly united by their opposition to Putin.
A group of Russian nationalists dressed in black, for instance, unfurled a huge banner reading: “We’ll take back Russia for the Russians.”
Bellona’s Nikitin has warned that the opposition could be co-opted by extremist elements, providing precisely the kind of provocative activities Putin could easily turn against the mostly white-collar confederation of educated Russians who did not grow up under the Soviet regime and are less tolerant of political repression.
Where will the opposition find an anchor?
Many analysts have suggested that this rudderless demographic could unintentionally weaken without a central message.
Lev Ponomaryov, a parliamentarian and opposition member stressed the need for leadership and unification.
But it remains unlikely that the continuing opposition marches will unseat Putin – who remains Russia’s most popular politician – at least anytime soon.
Putin’s own distain for the demonstrators as spoiled city dwellers was reflected in comments of many observers who had come into the city to see the demonstrations who were quoted by the press.
“Who do they thing can do a better job?” said one spectator who would not give his name to the Associated Press. “If they think anyone else can, they are idiots.”
The march culminated at Prospekt Akademika Sakharova, where opposition leaders who had not been summoned by police for questioning the previous day presented a list of demands ranging from Putin’s resignation, dissolving the parliament, holding new parliamentary elections and passing a law to limit presidential terms.
The demands were read to the thousands-strong crowd by Opposition leader and environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova.
Yashin, who went to the rally straight from being questioned by police, said he had thanked his interrogators for promoting the march.
“I told them that no one had done so much for the success of our demonstration,” he said, to cheers from the crowd.
“We have no better helpers than these criminal people who are carrying out senseless, idiotic repressions.”
Udaltsov addressed the throng of supporters clad in red, calling for a united front against the regime.
“The authorities only think in terms of repression, hence all the raids on our homes and intimidation,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Indeed, noted Bellona’s Nikitin, the restraint of the protesters was also partly based on that.
“They saw what happened to other opposition leaders the day before and said ‘I don’t want that happening to me,’” he said.
What the opposition has to fear
Other observers, including Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the protest movement probably would force the authorities into a less repressive stance.
“Putin is confused. He understands that society has changed and that he’s dealing with an entirely different population compared with his first term in office,” Malashenko said. “He can pressure them all he wants, but he knows that the old tactics won’t work.”
But Nikitin was of a different mind.
“My sense is that the authorities are waiting to enforce [the new protest law] and target so called unsanctioned acts of protest, he said.
“It is a truncheon they are deciding not to use yet. God knows what will happen next.”