Anti-government slogans and calls for change resounded in Moscow’s central boulevards Tuesday, suggesting that Russian authorities’ recent moves to suppress dissent haven’t damped the opposition’s spirits.
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.”
The event was dubbed the “March of Millions” to symbolize the wave of discontent that has enveloped Russia’s largest cities since disputed parliamentary elections in December.
Protest organizers estimated the turnout at more than 100,000, but police, known for downplaying participation, said it was about 18,000.
Pushkin Square, the starting point, was a sea of colors as marchers clutched flags, posters and wet-weather gear.
But their lively attire didn’t mask protesters’ resentment over the prospect of 12 more years of Putin and his personal political project, the ruling United Russia party.
“I have been to all the recent demonstrations because I hate the authorities. They have stolen so much from the people, they’re just traitors,” said 73-year-old Lev Zavaruyev, a retired fisheries worker. “We’ve gone through perestroika and there’s still no democracy. Look at all those police vans over there intimidating us.”
Another participant, 26-year-old Web designer Ivan Postoyuk, decried the authorities’ notion of elections as a masquerade and said Russia was becoming a “totalitarian state.”
“I want political competition to emerge and for society to develop in a normal way. Police came to my grandmother’s apartment the other day; they have had a dossier on me since I attended the last rally,” he said, wearing a white ribbon, the symbol of the protest movement.
Farther down the two-mile route, Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov addressed a throng of supporters clad in red, calling for a united front against the regime.
Udaltsov, who skipped a summons by Russia’s top investigative body to attend the protest, said in an interview that Putin is “starting to panic.”
“The authorities only think in terms of repression, hence all the raids on our homes and intimidation,” he said.
Tuesday’s protest, which fell on the Russia Day holiday, came on the heels of a concerted effort by authorities to limit opposition protesters’ room to maneuver.
Acting on investigators’ orders, Moscow police on Monday carried out raids on the homes of as many as 15 opposition figures, including those of Udaltsov and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, and said they seized a large quantity of campaign material and antigovernment literature.
Amnesty International later condemned the searches as politically motivated.
On Friday, Putin signed into law draconian legislation increasing fines to $10,000 for participants and $30,000 for organizers involved in protests that are unauthorized, attract larger crowds than permitted, or cause damage or injury.
Although no arrests or fines were reported as of late Tuesday, police maintained a heightened presence along the protest route.
Some analysts saw the peaceful nature of Tuesday’s march and rally as a sign that the government’s tough stance on protesters had worked.
“The threat of fines targeted aggressive elements within the protest movement. That there was no damage to government or private property showed that the new law was effective,” Dmitry Orlov, director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communication and adviser to the pro-Putin All-Russia People’s Front movement, said in an interview.
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.”