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Analysis & Opinion
06.03.12 A Test Of Will
By Andrew Roth

Close to 1,000 opposition protesters held a fountain in the center of Pushkin Square, chanting slogans and ignoring calls from the police to disband, before riot troops roughly broke up the rally on Monday evening. Leaders of the “nonsystemic” opposition, including anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny and hundreds of protesters, were dragged away to police minibuses and detained at local police stations for several hours. Navalny, who was released from jail later that evening, told a crowd of supporters and journalists that the demonstration was an “experiment” and that hundreds of supporters had already shown they were willing to stay “until the end.”

Less than 24 hours after Vladimir Putin scored a resounding win in Sunday’s presidential vote, a police-estimated 14,000 protesters clogged central Moscow to denounce the elections as illegitimate. Despite thousands of riot police and special military units called into the city to ensure order following the election, the main rally remained peaceful like previous demonstrations against vote fraud, which drew at least 50,000 people each. Leaders of the burgeoning opposition movement, including Navalny, Left Front Leader and protest organizer Sergey Udaltsov and others gave heated speeches that focused almost exclusively on the president-elect.

Demonstrators chanted “Russia without Putin” and “Putin – out!” as they waved political party flags and displayed homemade signs at the rally. Many were still coming to terms with the election results. “When I saw the numbers, I was stunned,” said 42-year-old Roman, referring to Putin’s win by an almost 40 point margin on Sunday. “I am used to 95 percent of Dagestan voting for Putin, but seeing those numbers in Moscow? It was like something from the Soviet times.”

Putin welcomed Sunday’s victory emotionally, shedding a tear as he thanked more than 100,000 of his supporters on nearby Manezh Square close to the Kremlin just the previous evening. “I feel sorry for him,” said 48-year-old Inessa Romanova, who carried a sign reading “Moscow doesn’t believe in tears,” the name of a Soviet film and a reference to Putin’s speech at Manezh Square. “I don’t believe that [his crying] was true love for the people – I think he had been very afraid of what might happen, like a child.”

On election night, movie stars who had stumped for Putin rubbed shoulders with army generals and policy wonks at his downtown campaign headquarters. Many thought that Putin’s victory vindicated his vision for a stricter social order. “The part of the opposition that does not listen to anything and calls the elections illegitimate doesn’t interest Putin,” said film Director Nikita Mikhalkov. United Russia Deputy Sergei Markov said that Putin’s margin of victory showed he had the mandate to bring “social order” back to the country immediately.

With the election letdown, many expected the opposition protests to subside, said Pavel Salin from the Center for Political Assessments. “I can’t say we’re expecting anything serious from this protest because right now the opposition is extremely demoralized. Putin’s victory was more than convincing…no one expected him to receive 64 percent.” Independent election watchdog Golos announced yesterday that Putin would have won in the first round even discounting the disputed ballots; this would further undermine the protest cause, said Salin.

Yet as most protesters began leaving Pushkin Square close to nine p.m., organizer Udaltsov told journalists he was not going anywhere. An estimated 1,000 people, among them Navalny, formed a human chain around the central fountain on the square. Police threatened to break up the protest, which the protesters said was legal, for almost an hour, before it began to dislodge the protesters by force and shove them into waiting minibuses. As officers worked their way toward the center, Just Russia Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomaryov grabbed a microphone and castigated the police: “You are breaking the law! You will be brought to justice!” The human chain shrank until only a handful of supporters stood around Navalny, and then he too was hustled into a bus and taken away.

He continued tweeting from inside. “Our bus is number 2012. But attention DO NOT LIGHT IT ON FIRE. Just slash the tires.“ New York Times media journalist David Carr, currently visiting Russia and tweeting from the protest, wrote: “Talked to Navalny at election hdqtrs last nite & he seemed like crown prince of Russia. Tonite, tweeting from police custody. #WeirdPlace.” When Navalny was taken to a local police station, Ponamaryov, who followed him into custody, checked in at the police station on Foursquare. Some demonstrators headed off to the station to support Navalny, while others staged an impromptu march down Moscow’s main avenue and were carted off by the police as well.

Earlier that evening at the rally Navalny seemed to be managing expectations. He told protesters discouraged by the elections that “it’s possible that we overestimated our own strength,” and pledged to develop a stronger “propaganda machine” for the opposition. Yet early Tuesday morning, when Navalny was released with a fine but no jail time, he echoed earlier statements by Udaltsov about setting up a “tent city” in Moscow and said he was testing the protesters’ resolve. “This was just a type of experiment [suggested] by Udaltsov about setting up a tent city. It showed that offhand there are already hundreds who are willing to stay to the end,” Navalny told the media. “We certainly will hold mass rallies. Thousands, tens of thousands of people will come out on the street and refuse to leave… and we will do this until we are victorious.”
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