MOSCOW— One year after Vladimir Putin was inaugurated as president of Russia for the third time, opposition leader Alexei Navalny led protesters in chanting “Putin Thief.”
While the white ribbons, iPads and anti-Putin placards were reminders of the big protests of last year, Monday’s long-awaited rally was marred by tragedy.
Hours before protesters arrived, a tower of loudspeakers fell over, killing a volunteer. Navalny was forced to speak through a bullhorn, his words reaching only hundreds of the thousands who turned out on a chill, overcast evening.
“I am fighting for a new future for my family," Navalny told the crowd from a flatbed truck. “I have no other country, no other people.”
In a larger sense, the Russian opposition leader’s words reach a far smaller audience than one year ago. Blacklisted by mainstream media, his political party denied registration, Navalny is now on trial for what he calls political charges.
With Russia’s democratic opposition on the defensive, Monday’s rally was devoted to demanding freedom for 26 protesters indicted for taking part in the rally one year ago. Their black and white portraits dominated today’s gathering. Placards called for release of Russia’s “political prisoners.”
Alexander Brakhov held a sign asking, “Should a thief sit in the Kremlin, or in jail?”
"The important thing is there is a big number of people, this will be a big help for the political prisoners," Brakhov said.
Crowd estimates hovered around 15,000, a fraction of the 50,000 estimated to have turned out one year ago, on the eve of Putin’s return to the presidency.
Critics say that Putin’s first year back as president has been marked by new laws restricting freedom of assembly and independent non-governmental organizations. Monday's protesters were greeted by rows upon rows of “cosmonauts” — bubble-helmeted riot police — and “robocops” — black-uniformed police in special body armor.
Hours before the rally, Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate of the Carnegie Moscow Center, called the protest a test: "For us, for our ability to take to the street to defend our people, for our ideals, and first of all for our people in prison."
Roman Dobrokhotov, a 29-year-old office worker who arrived in a business suit, was joined by friends to promote their new political party — the December 5 Party. Looking around, he said he saw a cross-section of Moscow.
"There are people of all categories here, starting with businessmen and top managers, and ending with pensioners," he said.
Indeed, most of the protesters seemed to be political independents. Unlike past rallies, red flags of the communists and black flags of the nationalists were rare.
The favorite chant of the evening was “Freedom, Freedom!”