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.
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.
"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.
"Various ideas are now voiced about Russia’s present and future, [but] these heated debates are normal for a democratic country," Putin said. "It’s important that we hear and respect each other, strive for mutual understanding, and look for compromise."
Putin, who was elected for an unprecedented third term in March, is facing some of the most serious political headwinds of his 12 years at Russia's helm. Not only are middle class Muscovites demanding his resignation in the streets, but next month his administration is slated to introduce tough reforms of the subsidized utility payments and educational tuitions that seem likely to ratchet up the economic pain on the working class Russians who voted for him en masse in March.
With the global price of oil – the source of over half the Russian government's revenues – plummeting, Putin's populist election promises may be much harder to fulfill at a time when inflation is already eating away at the living standards of millions of lower class Russians.
"Putin's own political base is growing restive," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a long-time leftist activist and director of the independent Institute for Globalization and Social Movement Studies in Moscow. "Working people around Russia are watching these middle class rallies in Moscow and realizing that it's possible to take your grievances into the street. The prospect of snowballing protests, perhaps in the autumn, explains why you're seeing such nervous and contradictory actions on the part of authorities."
Gennady Gudkov, a Duma deputy with the left-wing Just Russia party who is a key protest organizer, says that this might be the last chance for the Kremlin to seek dialogue with the opposition.
"If the authorities would calm down and step back, we still have a chance to achieve normal, evolutionary democratic reforms," he says. "But if not, we are headed for social deadlock."
The police presence today was huge, but it stayed back from the immediate zone where protesters were walking and meeting. Many protesters said that was a positive sign, but some said they worried that Putin may not be ready to embrace real change.
"Concessions are not Putin's style; he sees compromise as a sign of weakness," says Vladimir Kirillin, a protester who described himself as a worker in the energy sector. "The country is moving forward, but he hasn't moved with it, and there is no higher authority to correct him…. But these protests are giving rise to new ideas, and new leaders, and that's very hopeful."