Protests are looking permanent in Russia
The huge turnout for today's anti-government rally in Moscow, despite recent intimidation tactics, sends a message to Vladimir Putin that he may have to coexist with an opposition movement.
Tens of thousands of protesters marched through the streets of downtown Moscow today in a show of opposition force which is the clearest indication yet that the pro-democracy movement brought to life by widespread perceptions of electoral fraud last December has become a permanent feature of Russia's political landscape.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Russians vs. Putin
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As usual, the spread between the police estimate of about 18,000 participants and organizer's claims of up to 120,000 was hard to reconcile. But journalists on the scene said 50,000 was a reasonable guess.
Russian officials last week had rushed through a draconian new law regulating protests, then launched a wave of home searches by police yesterday followed by interrogations that kept several key opposition leaders from attending today's rally. But if authorities had hoped to warn people off protesting, those hopes were dashed by the buoyant turnout and the defiant mood of protesters.
The march and subsequent rally, for which organizers had a permit, avoided the violence that marred a similar protest on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration last month and had many protesters expressing hope that Russian authorities might be ready to accept the existence of a strong and permanent street opposition.
RELATED – Defying Putin: 7 Russians to watch
"Yesterday the authorities staged raids on peoples' homes as an act of intimidation, and did it in such a demonstrative way that it raised real fears," says Sergei Bespalov, an aircraft engineer. "It seems they wanted people to stay away today, but they were mistaken. I came here ready for anything, even to be arrested. Of course, I don't want to be arrested. This is an open march of protest, and the big turnout makes it clear to the authorities that repression is not a wise path to take."
And in one small sign that the Kremlin might have heard that message, Mr. Putin devoted part of his official speech – today was a national holiday known as Russia Day – to what sounded like a call for tolerance and dialogue.