Mikhail Metzel/AP
Protesters gather in Moscow on Saturday for an anti-Putin rally that defied government statements that the opposition movement was dying down.

Anti-Putin protests waning? Tens of thousands of Russians say no.

On Saturday, an energized Moscow crowd as large as many of those from last winter and spring protested against Russian President Putin. But this time, the tone was far more politicized.

Tens of thousands of Russians defied predictions of the anti-Putin protest movement's demise Saturday, and filled Moscow's cavernous Sakharov Avenue with a diverse and sometimes fractious crowd that was as large as many previous demonstrations last winter and spring.

As usual, estimates of the rally's size swung wildly between a police tally of 14,000 to organizers' claims of 100,000 or more. Neither source has any track record of accuracy. Journalists on the scene said at least 25,000 people were present in the gigantic space at the meeting's peak.

The mood was upbeat, and as before, protesters said they were fed up with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the highly orchestrated top-down nature of Russia's political system, corruption, and the lack of rule of law. 

Some said that recent tough signals from the Kremlin that penalties for protest will be much harsher, such as the two-year prison sentence handed down to three Pussy Riot women last month, or last week's expulsion from the Duma of opposition-sympathizing parliamentary deputy Gennady Gudkov, have only strengthened their resolve to continue protesting.

"I want honest and fair elections," said Yelena Morozova, an engineer. "The authorities are becoming more cruel and things are changing for the worse. Pussy Riot [members] were imprisoned for nothing. Gudkov was elected by the people and thrown out of Duma by deputies; there is no fairness in the system.... We need to protest harder, bring more people out, then maybe the authorities will listen."

Defying Putin: 7 Russians to watch

One visible shift was greater politicization, with more people marching in organized contingents, bearing the slogans and banners of parties, trade unions, and political organizations from the extreme left to the hard nationalist right. Also present were students' groups, gay rights advocates, and even a colorfully dressed group with a huge banner that read "Existentialists of Russia."

Another change is that the white ribbons that were the chief symbol of the protest movement when it began last December are now matched by the red ribbons introduced by the Communist Party, which officially took part in Saturday's rally for the first time.

The mainly democratic and civil rights demands put forward by the middle-class protesters who dominated last winter's rallies are now supplemented by economic ones, including anger against education and medical reforms that will end state subsidies and raise the costs for ordinary Russians.

"There is no education reform, just cutbacks to budgets and ending the principle of free education for all," said Natalya Yershova, a Moscow teacher. "Maybe they think if people are less educated, they'll think less about what's going on. There's nothing we can do but come out to protest."       

Drawing in the vast majority

Ilya Ponomaryov, a left-wing Duma deputy who addressed the rally, says that the insertion of economic and social demands into the rallies may bother some liberals, who would like to keep it focused on political freedoms, but it is the only way for the opposition movement to appeal to Russia's vast majority -- who have so far remained on the sidelines.

"Most Russians want more than fair elections. They are hurting from inflation and really tough reforms the Putin government is bringing in that are already hitting living standards," says Mr. Ponomaryov. "We urgently need to bring in a new program to carry this movement forward, one that combines socially oriented demands with those for political rights."

Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and co-chairman of the liberal Solidarnost movement, told the rally that the diverse organizing forces will be able to agree on a much clearer program moving forward.

"If we don't demand the dismissal of Putin, if we don't demand a new presidential election, we won't be able to change anything in the country," Mr. Nemtsov said.

"There is another piece of good news: nobody believed that the left-wingers, liberals, and nationalists [who make up different wings of the protest movement] would be able to get together and reach agreement on political demands – with agreement on social and economic demands being especially difficult to reach. I want to tell you that we have reached agreement," he said.

"Our political demands are completely clear: immediate release of political prisoners and new, honest parliamentary and presidential elections under public control. The president must have limits put on his powers, the Constitution must be changed, and parliament must have a more powerful role." 

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