On Monday 5 March, one day after the re-election of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia, demonstrations by the opposition were forcibly ended by the riot police and hundreds of protestors were arrested. Opposition leaders including Alexey Navalny, Ilya Yashin and Sergei Udaltsov were among the opposition protesters that were arrested following the fourth mass rally since December's contested parliamentary election and the first since the presidential poll of March 4. In the months leading up to the election, opposition leaders were elated not only by the large crowds their protests attracted, some in Moscow as big as 100,000, but by the unusual official tolerance from officials who previously rejected almost all permission requests for opposition rallies. However, just a day after Putin’s re-election the tolerance seems over.
The pattern appears clear: Putin will allow a few isolated protests, the place and time of which is agreed with the authorities, as a safety valve for disillusionment with his 12-year domination of Russia among mainly urban demonstrators. If, however, there are protests organized that are not in line with this policy, they will be forcibly beaten down by the riot police. Monday’s protest was such an example of an unauthorized anti-Putin demonstration.
Most of the oppositionists who attended the protest - 14,000 by the police's count and 20,000 by the opposition's - dispersed peacefully at its conclusion. However, about 1000 people remained as a column of special police entered the square. Standing in 30cm-thick snow on the ice and surrounded by a throng of supporters and bodyguards, Mr Navalny and Mr Nashin received a warning from Valerii Bakunin, assistant to Putin's Human Rights Commissioner, that the crackdown was imminent. They ignored the warning after which the Moscow riot police detained hundreds of demonstrators.
Where previous protests have been marked by high spirits and a hopeful mood, a day after the election the protest was notable for its sense of outrage and the strident anti-Putinism of the opposition's leaders. Black-helmeted police hauled away more than 500 people, including several opposition leaders, who attended unsanctioned rallies in Moscow and St Petersburg or refused to disperse at the end of a rally that had been permitted. After three months of protests that passed off peacefully, the police intervention sent a clear signal that Putin is losing patience with the opposition and will crack down if protesters step out of line. However, Russian activists say they plan to continue protesting against Vladimir Putin's victory in presidential elections.
Putin won the presidential election with 63.6 per cent of the vote and in May he will be sworn in to serve for another six-year term as president of Russia. Both members of the opposition and independent monitors have called the legitimacy of the election into question, stating that large-scale fraud was involved in the elections, including forced voting, ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting. Reports have recorded voters casting their ballots multiple times at several polling stations.
Right after his release Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has become a leading light of the protest movement, stated: "We will keep fighting until we win," announcing more protests in Moscow and other cities, starting this weekend.
Sources: Radio Free Europe, Reuters, BBC, The Washington Post
Image Flickr by Freedomhouse