Some 50,000 people rallied in central Moscow on Saturday to demand fair elections, the largest demonstration in a series of protests this summer that has rattled the Kremlin and posed the biggest political challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin in seven years.
Unlike previous rallies, which were met with harsh police crackdown that led to thousands of detentions and violent beatings with truncheons, Saturday’s demonstration was approved by the government and saw only scant confrontations between riot police and protesters. Nonetheless, more than 225 demonstrators were detained, almost 150 of them in Moscow and more than 80 at a second protest in St. Petersburg.
The tens of thousands of protesters ignored drizzling rain and unseasonably cold weather to gather in Moscow’s Sakharov Square just off the capital city’s central Garden Ring road, chanting such slogans as “Russia will be free!” and “Release the political prisoners!”
Moscow’s protest movement for fair elections began in early July, after the city’s elections commission rejected several opposition candidates’ applications to run in a Sept. 8 vote for the 45-seat Moscow City Duma, the capital’s city council. The current council is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which the opposition accuses of engaging in corrupt schemes that pilfer city budget funds.
Hundreds of protesters gathered daily in front of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s office until July 20, when a government-sanctioned demonstration organized by opposition candidates rejected from the ballot and Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny brought out more than 22,000 demonstrators.
That shook the Kremlin, as it watched a protest about local elections morph into an anti-government demonstration with chants of “Putin is a thief!” echoing through Moscow’s central streets.
The Kremlin swiftly cracked down on subsequent public demonstrations. Navalny and several other opposition politicians were arrested and are serving time behind bars for calling for unsanctioned rallies. Demonstrations July 27 and Aug. 3 resulted in more than 2,500 detentions. As many as 11 people have been charged with rioting, which could result in 15-year prison sentences.
The crackdown drew condemnation from human rights groups and several Western governments, which urged the Russian government to release those detained for protesting for fair elections.
The city government sanctioned Saturday’s protests but warned that participants who did not follow the rules on where to demonstrate would be prosecuted. Late in the afternoon, police detained about 100 demonstrators as they marched along Moscow’s green, tree-lined Boulevard Ring which encircles the city’s historic center.
Last week, Kremlin pressure on opposition leaders and activists intensified in other ways. University students were warned not to participate in the rally, and police began reviewing the finances and military service records of known activists and protesters.
Prosecutors opened a money laundering case against Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund, which has produced several investigations into government graft and corruption and has remained a steadfast voice criticizing the Kremlin. On Saturday, police stormed Navalny’s studio, where livestreams for his popular YouTube channel are filmed, and detained nine people.
In one case, prosecutors requested that a judge strip the parental rights of a Moscow couple who brought their toddler to the July 27 protest. The couple said they were simply out on a stroll when they ran into the rally.
Meanwhile, Russian authorities are propagating the idea that the protests were being supported by foreign governments. Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned diplomats from the U.S. and German embassies after both issued warnings to its citizens to avoid areas where the protests were taking place. Russia claimed the embassies were encouraging participation.
“We underlined that we consider the publication of the route ... as promoting participation in an illegal event [the protest] and calling for action which constitutes interference in the internal affairs of our country,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The protest movement has grown as more Russians come out to voice their frustrations over the Russian authority’s tight control over local issues. Ahead of Saturday’s rally, several leading musicians and popular culture figures publicly urged participation in the demonstration as a way of telling the Kremlin that “enough was enough.”
Many demonstrators said they were angry at the government’s disregard for their constitutional right to protest and to choose from a variety of political candidates for local elections. Public discontent has been heightened by the country’s struggling economy and Putin’s approval numbers have been shrinking.
“I don’t have much optimism for our country,” said Ira Zavaleeva, 30, a freelance photographer and media producer from Moscow who stood in the rain Saturday with a group of friends, some holding small Russian flags. “I don’t see any positive changes coming any time soon. Many of my friends have already left Russia for elsewhere. I will also, if I get a chance.”
Zavaleeva said she and her friends came to the rally despite believing that it would not result in a reversal of the government’s decision to ban the opposition candidates from the September ballot. But perhaps if enough people come to the streets, they said, the government would at least recognize that people want something very different from the government.
“We know it can’t change everything, but still … you can’t just sit around and do nothing. We’ve got to do at least this,” said Maria Anishchenko.
Demonstrations in support of Moscow’s protests were also held in several other Russian cities, including St. Petersburg.