MOSCOW - Tens of thousands of Russians braved a cold rain to jam a central Moscow square as opposition groups sought to regain momentum following a summer of demonstrations that targeted both local elections and Russia's broader political system.
The Sunday rally was the first major effort by liberal political groups and allied parties since elections earlier in the month. The run-up to the September 8 vote — particularly, election officials' preventing opposition candidates from running — were the catalyst for the biggest wave of sustained anti-government rallies in years.
Instead of elections, the September 29 event was focused on "political repression," as activists demanded that authorities halt a campaign of raids and arrests targeting anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny and his network of supporters nationwide.
Marchers chanted "Freedom for political prisoners!" and, "Let them go!" and "Putin Is a Thief!" as speakers that included Navalny and Lyubov Sobol, a human rights lawyer and a key organizer of the summer demonstrations, implored participants to seize the momentum.
"Ski-mask raids are not a symbol of horror and terror. They are a symbol of cowardice," Navalny told the crowd, some of whom carried signs that read "I don't want to live in fear!" and "Enough with the contrived crimes!"
"We have to keep demanding that they respect our rights; they have left us with no choice but to take to the streets to protest," Sobol said.
The event was the first time that Navalny has appeared at a demonstration since he was released from jail last month. He had been held for 30 days for repeatedly organizing unauthorized public gatherings.
Activists were rallying against harsh police tactics used in earlier demonstrations as well as what many Muscovites say were harsh jail sentences handed down against those detained by police.
The rally was authorized by the Moscow mayor's office, meaning mass detentions by police were less likely.
The nongovernmental organization White Counter estimated that more than 23,000 people were in attendance, a figure that matched up with a preliminary official tally released by Moscow police
In a video posted online ahead of time, Sobol accused the Russian government of pursuing “political cases” to “frighten the opposition.”
During the near-weekly rallies held in the Russian capital in July and August, more than 3,000 people were detained and many were beaten as police in some cases used force to disperse crowds. The harsh crackdown sparked condemnation from human rights groups and Western governments.
The protests were among the largest in Moscow since a wave of demonstrations in 2011-12 sparked by anger over evidence of electoral fraud and dismay at Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third presidential term.
Moscow, along with many regions and municipalities across Russia, held local and regional elections on September 8 -- a test for the Kremlin-allied United Russia party ahead of parliamentary elections in 2021.
Despite the exclusion of dozens of opposition and independent candidates, the September 8 elections delivered a stinging setback to United Russia, which lost 13 seats in the 45-member Moscow city council..
That outcome was credited in part to Navalny’s so-called Smart Voting strategy, under which he urged Russians to back candidates with the best chance of beating United Russia politicians — all of whom ran as independents in Moscow apparently to hide their affiliation with the party.
Never very popular, United Russia has seen its support fall further amid economic uncertainty and political fallout over moves such as raising the retirement age and hiking the VAT tax rate.
Other unpopular initiatives have included a program to tax long-distance trucking, and crackdowns on protests in many cities over local issues such as waste dumps and construction.
Putin’s ratings have also suffered.
Outside of Moscow, United Russia held its own, winning all regional governorships contested on September 8.
Meanwhile, Russian authorities have used a mix of tactics in an effort to quash the protest sentiment that erupted during summer and prevent it from spreading.
Seven people detained during the protests have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to five years, but prosecutors and courts — widely believed to answer to the Kremlin — have relented to mass public pressure in some cases.