Opponents of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin staged another rally in Moscow on Saturday, but with Putin now elected to the presidency for a six-year term, their mass protest movement seemed to be losing steam.
Organizers had a permit for 50,000 to gather on Novy Arbat, a wide shopping street. Even the activists' highest crowd estimate, however, was only half that number — nowhere near the size of the events that followed fraud-tainted parliamentary elections in December. Security forces, though, mounted a huge operation. Moscow police and special officers known as OMON lined the avenue. The uniformed rows snaked through side streets and the Metro, as well.
Andrei Bykov, a 32-year-old who works in finance, said he wasn't discouraged by the dwindling turnout, even on a sunny day with the temperature in the 20s. He said he had many family members who supported the protest but were not present. Even without huge numbers on the streets, Bykov said, in a year, "More people will be aware of the things that have been happening, especially the corruption that has almost eaten all of the system in Russia."
Today's demonstration, like earlier protests, was called under the slogan "For Fair Elections," and banners strung across the stage read, "This wasn't an election and this isn't a president." The protesters consider last Sunday's presidential vote illegitimate, and citizen poll watchers who addressed the crowd catalogued the vote fraud they and their colleagues had witnessed. The methods they reported included falsifying final vote tallies, abuse of absentee balloting, and recruiting voters to cast ballots for Putin in precincts of Moscow — a city where even the official count gave him less than a majority.
The Kremlin claims Putin defeated his four much weaker rivals with 64 percent of the vote — much more than the simple majority he needed to avoid a run-off. Today, the head of an independent monitoring group, Golos, told the rally no one really knew the size of Putin's win.
"We can only fantasize about the numbers," he said, "but we can say the election was unfair."
Actor Maksim Vitorgan said Putin had won the numbers war. "He's the president of numbers, not people," he said, drawing applause from the crowd.
Anna Korzhova, 32, acknowledged Putin probably won a majority. The independent League of Voters estimates he likely won 53 percent. But Korzhova said in a democracy, "We want to be respected, even if we are a minority."
She said Putin was already making concessions; she noted the government was reviewing the cases of political prisoners, including the jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. She added, "Just to say we're for free elections isn't enough." Now, Korzhova said, "the question is about formulating and making the right requests." Number one on her list is an independent judiciary, which, she said, will "solve 50 percent of the problems."
Political parties of all stripes — from Communists to nationalists to liberals — were represented in the crowd by colorful flags. The movement has no single leader. But some of the speakers on the stage gave a glimpse of where the anti-Putin movement is heading. Several young people who just won seats in the Moscow municipal government were featured.
Maxim Kats, 27, a former professional poker player, admitted that with his long hair, Jewish surname and unconventional trade, he was an unlikely candidate. Kats said he'd won without pandering to voters by changing his image or promising to raise pensions, and he urged the crowd to follow his lead, so they could take power within the capital.
Saturday's rally was less fiery than Monday's first big protest after the presidential election. That event was punctuated by frequent, angry chants of "Putin belongs in jail" and "Putin is a thief," and cracks about the tears Putin shed at his victory rally and references to the Botox he's believed to use. On Saturday, speakers opened the rally with a call for freedom for political prisoners, notably Alexei Kozlov, a businessman who's already served jail time and is due back in court tomorrow.
A notable exception to the more measured tone was Sergei Udaltsov, the leftist who got himself arrested Monday by trying to stage a sit-in on Pushkin Square after the rally there ended. Saturday, he whipped up the crowd with chants of "We're the power here" and called for a million people to march on Moscow in May, just before Putin is inaugurated. After the latest protest, Udaltsov tried to lead a march from Novy Arbat to Pushkin Square, was taken into custody again, with about a dozen other people, and later released.