Russian protesters demonstrate — and celebrate

About 1,000 opposition supporters rallied in Moscow on Sunday with the government's approval after previous protests this year were banned, frustrated by officialdom and met with a sometimes brutal police response.

Protesters had been attempting to gather in Triumfalnaya Square on the 31st of any given month to underscore their support for Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the right of free assembly.

But the city administration denied them permission each time, and they would find the square occupied by pro-Kremlin youth groups donating blood or by an obscure motorists association holding car races or simply surrounded by a fence and closed for unexpected repair. At each attempt, they were roughed up and arrested by the police.

Still, the opposition kept trying to gather.

Sunday's rally was approved by Moscow's new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. His predecessor, Yuri Luzhkov, was fired by the central government in September after 18 years in office for "lack of president's trust" after he was accused of corruption and abuse of office by Kremlin-controlled television networks.

If Sobyanin's approval of Sunday's protest was meant to suggest that Luzhkov, and not the Kremlin, had been behind efforts to block previous gatherings, the opposition was not buying it. Luzhkov's firing had nothing to do with winning back the right to demonstrate freely in downtown Moscow, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told fellow protesters.

"We fought hard for the right to assemble freely and express our opinion, including critique of the regime," he said. "When they arrested us and took us to police stations, I couldn't believe that we would make it. But we made it, and this is our great success."

"We were not afraid of the police sticks over all these months," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of Moscow Helsinki Group, "and we deserved that right to assemble here today. This demonstration is our common achievement, and I bow to all of you for winning back this constitutional right."

Despite granting permission, the authorities didn't remove the fence in Triumfalnaya Square. The square was surrounded by thousands of riot police. People had to stand in long lines and have their bags and pockets checked before passing though a metal detector, which did not appear to be working, and entering the designated area.

Speakers at the meeting took turns demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the return of free elections. Two young activists produced a circular saw and made quite a show of trying to saw through the fence to the cheers of the crowd. The pair were taken away by police.

"This is just a beginning, and we won't stop with a concession allowing us what is allowed by the constitution anyway," said 36-year-old linguist Oleg Shalimov. "We want real freedom in every sphere, and we will get it whatever it takes."

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