Moscow’s protest movement struggled to take its fight against Vladimir Putin’s regime to a new stage on Saturday as waning numbers of Muscovites poured on to the streets to demand change and demonstrate against what they said were illegitimate presidential elections.
Protest organisers said at least 25,000 had joined Saturday’s demonstration on one of Moscow’s main thoroughfares, Novy Arbat. Police put the number at 10,000.
More than 50,000 turned out for demonstrations in December but Mr Putin’s 64 per cent victory in presidential elections last Sunday has taken some of the wind out of the protest movement’s sails.
Signs of friction are growing too. Nationalists groups walked out of the latest protest after their speakers were denied the platform.
But those that came said they were preparing to dig in for a long battle as, one by one, speakers called on the demonstrators to now take more active participation in political life, including running in local elections, to battle Mr Putin’s monopoly on power.
“March 4 has passed and now we have to say what’s next,” said Garry Kasparov, the veteran liberal leader. “The worst thing that could happen is if we are demoralised and if we think there is no chance to change anything.”
“There is no need to listen to those who say well he probably won anyway with say 53 per cent. We just don’t know what the real results were. There were so many falsifications. We now for the first time have experience in this battle. This is only the beginning. We were not going to be able to get our voice back in just three months. How fast we are able to get it back only depends on us.”
The anger and despondency of the evening protest on Pushkin Square last Monday in the immediate aftermath of Mr Putin’s apparent resounding win was gone. Monday’s demonstration had been dominated by calls to put Mr Putin behind bars and had ended in clashes with riot police and hundreds of arrests after about 200 demonstrators attempted to remain on the square.
This time, many of the speakers were new faces, including a handful of twenty-somethings who had run in municipal elections for the first time last Sunday and won. They called on the protesters to join them in running for election, as Russia prepares for further municipal polls and, potentially, for a wave of new elections for regional governors and mayors, under sweeping political reforms forwarded by Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin’s protégé.
“When I decided run for election, everyone told me it wasn’t possible … that I would have put on a suit and join [ruling party] United Russia … and even change my name,” said one of them, Maxim Kats, a 27 year old entrepreneur. “But I was elected just as I am …. We are all told that everything has already been seized and bought, that it is not possible to do anything. But it’s not true. If it worked for me it could work for you and then we can start to change.”
Grigory Yavlinsky, the veteran liberal leader who was barred from running in the presidential election, also called on the protesters to prepare for a longer battle. “The road will be long and hard and the fight won’t be fast,” he told the crowd. “But we will do everything we can, and Russia will be free! Russia needs change!”
Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the radical Left Front group, called for protesters to continue to seek to occupy Pushkin Square, and called for the movement to gather one million marchers on May 1, the week before Mr Putin’s inauguration. “The regime hoped we would go away from the street. But we will not leave! …Our fight has not ended. It has reached a new stage.”
But though he was joined by more than 500 protesters seeking to march to Pushkin Square on Saturday, he was soon boxed in by riot police and arrested, together with four others. There were no violent clashes, however, as on Monday.
Many of the participants said they left the meeting with new optimism. “Nothing is going to change if we do nothing. If we continue to unite it will be possible to change something., We already have done by collecting so many election observers,” said Andrei, a student of history and law at Russian state humanities university in Moscow.
“We are not aiming for revolution but for every day work. And if everyone does their work … then there is going to be a new generation of people with a new conscience and a new mindset, and there is no way Putin can stay for another six years, never mind twelve,” said Anya, a young journalist.
Filip Talanov, a middle aged designer carrying a Facebook flag who attended the first ever meeting in December and has been at all of them since, said : “There are less people than at Sakharova but more people than at Pushkinskaya. People all the same realise we need to merge together and fight. Our fight is only beginning. People have calmed down a little but there will be a new wave. “
Olga Dobrokhotova, a pensioner, whose son daughter and niece all were observers last Sunday, said, “the elections themselves were not successful but they were successful in that such a civil society as this was created in the process.”
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