MOSCOW – Tens of thousands of people held the largest anti-government protests that post-Soviet Russia has seen to criticize electoral fraud and demand an end to Vladimir Putin’s rule. Police showed surprising restraint and state-controlled TV gave the nationwide demonstrations unexpected airtime, but there is no indication the opposition is strong enough to push for real change from the prime minister or his ruling party.
Nonetheless, the prime minister seems to be in a weaker position than he was a week ago, before Russians voted in parliamentary elections. His United Party lost a substantial share of its seats, although it retains a majority.
The independent Russian election-observer group Golos said Saturday that “it achieved the majority mandate by falsification,” international observers reported widespread irregularities, and the outpouring of Russians publicly denouncing him throughout the country undermines Putin’s carefully nurtured image of a strong and beloved leader.
Putin “has stopped being the national leader – in the eyes of his team, the ruling political class and society,” analyst Alexei Malachenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center wrote on his blog.
Putin, who was the president of Russia from 2000-2008 before stepping aside because of term limits, will seek a new term in the Kremlin in the March presidential elections. The protests have tarnished his campaign, but there is not yet any obvious strong challenger.
A statement released late Saturday by Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, acknowledged the day’s protests by people “displeased” with the elections but noted demonstrations in support of the elections in recent days.
“We respect the point of view of the protestors, we are hearing what is being said, and we will continue to listen to them,” the statement said.
The most dramatic of Saturday’s protests saw a vast crowd jam an expansive Moscow square and adjacent streets, packed so tight that some demonstrators stood on others’ toes. Although police estimated the crowd at 30,000, aerial photographs suggested far more, and protest organizers made claims ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 or more.
Elsewhere in Russia, some 7,000 protesters assembled in St. Petersburg, and demonstrations ranging from a few hundred people to a thousand took place in more than 60 other cities. Police reported only about 100 arrests nationwide, a notably low number for a force that characteristically takes quick and harsh action against opposition gatherings.
The police restraint was one of several signs that conditions may be easing for the beleaguered opposition, at least in the short term. Although city authorities generally refuse opposition forces permission to rally or limit the gatherings to small attendance, most of the protests on Saturday were sanctioned.