Thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Russian capital Sunday on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration for a third term as president. At least 250 people were arrested when demonstrators clashed with police.
Demonstrators shouted “Russia without Putin!” as they marched through central Moscow to protest Vladimir Putin’s impending third presidential term, which he won in an election last March that critics say was rigged.
Police say the opposition rally, which was billed by its organizers as the “March of Millions” drew 8,000 people, while some in the opposition claim 100,000 people came out. Estimates of at least 20,000 marchers seem closer to reality.
Protests took place after the March 4 presidential vote, and large-scale demonstrations were held in Moscow in December following parliamentary elections that the opposition says were also fraudulent.
Sunday’s protest turned violent when riot police stopped demonstrators crossing a bridge over the Moscow River from entering a square used by the opposition for one of last winter’s protests. Some of the marchers tried to push their way through and police used their batons and made arrests. Among those detained were Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and liberal leader Boris Nemtsov. Several people on both sides were injured.
Russia’s opposition movement is composed of disparate groups: demonstrators holding Soviet flags marched Sunday alongside those carrying flags of the Libertarian Party of Russia, while Russian Orthodox monarchists mingled uncomfortably with protesters carrying banners bearing the image of Cuban communist revolutionary Che Guevara.
What unites them is their disgust over the prospect of Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin for another 12 years. Ira, a young Muscovite who attended Sunday’s protest, said above the noise of a police helicopter hovering overhead that everyone is “tired of the regime.”
She says those who turned out Sunday, young and old alike, are people “who know what the truth is and believe in it,” and who have hopes for a positive future for Russia.
Anton is an opposition activist who traveled more than 1,600 kilometers from the Russian city of Yekaterinburg to attend the Moscow rally.
He says he would have preferred that Mr. Putin’s inauguration not take place at all, or that the government had been forced to make “serious concessions” in exchange for his return to the Kremlin, such as annulling last December’s parliamentary elections and holding a fresh vote.
However, analysts say Mr. Putin is unlikely to make such concessions after he formerly takes over the presidency from Dmitry Medvedev on Monday.
Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think tank says the government is likely to continue a strategy of downplaying and discrediting the opposition. He says state-controlled television will be used to put out the message that the opposition lacks “a positive program,” that it is “feeble” and divided, and that its leaders “are people with questionable pasts.”
Meanwhile, the government has been holding mass rallies of its own. On May 1, at least 100,000 people, including, Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev, joined a march organized by pro-government trade unions and the ruling United Russia party. On Sunday, tens of thousands attended a pro-Kremlin rally and concert at Moscow’s Victory Park.