Vast Rally in Moscow Is a Challenge to Putin’s Power

Ellen Barry and Michael Schwirtz, New York Times, 12-24-2011

MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of citizens converged in Moscow on Saturday for the second huge antigovernment demonstration in a month, an early victory for activists struggling to forge a burst of energy into a political force capable of challenging Vladimir V. Putin’s power.

The first such demonstration, two weeks ago, was unprecedented for Mr. Putin’s rule, and there were reasons Saturday’s turnout could have been lower — among them, winter holidays and the onset of bitter cold.

Instead, people poured all afternoon into a canyon created by vast government buildings, and the police put the crowd at 30,000, more than they reported on Dec. 10. Organizers said it was closer to 120,000. Hours later, as the protesters dispersed, they chanted, slowly: “We will come again! We will come again!”

If the movement sustains its intensity, it could alter the course of the presidential election in March, when Mr. Putin plans to extend his stretch as the country’s dominant figure to an eventual 18 years. Opposition voters were furious over the conduct of this month’s parliamentary election, and will be roused again by Mr. Putin’s campaigning. Still, maintaining momentum is a huge challenge, and the initial giddy mood has already hardened into something more serious.


The crime novelist Boris Akunin, peering out through wire-rimmed glasses as he addressed the crowd from a stage, said demonstrators should prepare themselves for a long haul.

“We will have a difficult year,” Mr. Akunin said. “But it will be an interesting year. It will be our year.”

The protests have rattled the Kremlin, which has not encountered widespread political resistance for a decade. Mr. Putin initially sneered at the demonstrators, saying days after the first rally that the white ribbons they have adopted as a symbol resembled limp condoms, and that they participated only because they were paid by foreign agents seeking to undermine Russia.

But it is clear that government elites are taking protesters’ complaints as a warning and scrambling to head off a more dangerous confrontation. On Saturday, for the first time, two high-level figures connected to the Kremlin were at the demonstration.

Former Finance Minister Aleksei L. Kudrin, a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle for more than two decades, took the stage to express his support for many of the protesters’ demands: the dismissal of the head of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Y. Churov; the dissolution of Parliament and new elections; and changes in the election code to allow for free competition.

Mr. Kudrin published an article on Saturday in Kommersant, a respected daily newspaper, noting that many employees of state enterprises were participating in the demonstrations.

“It seems to me they wanted to say the following: ‘Respected leaders! Many of us have come here for the first time, fully consciously and entirely independently. We have something to lose, and we are for stability,’ ” Mr. Kudrin wrote. “But the violation of your own rules — and this is the way we take the information about mass falsifications and violations of statistical patterns — this is too much.”

The billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov, who has said he will run against Mr. Putin, was also in the crowd, though he did not deliver a speech. He arrived without a security detail, stooping occasionally to answer questions and pose for photographs with young women.

Both Mr. Kudrin and Mr. Prokhorov are viewed skeptically by a portion of the protesters, who fear they represent attempts by the Kremlin to dilute or divide a powerful new protest electorate.

“Sorry, what relationship does Kudrin have to democratic movements?” wrote Vladimir Varfolomeyev, an editor at the radio station Ekho Moskvy, via Twitter. “He’s a bureaucrat who has faithfully served the regime for 10 years.” When Mr. Kudrin took the stage, he was booed by some in the crowd and cheered by others.

Though all demonstrators interviewed said they were hoping to avoid a violent uprising, some left the possibility hanging in the air like a warning. Aleksei Navalny, the blogger whose enormous popularity set these protests in motion, was greeted with a deafening roar from the crowd, which had been begging to see him for more than an hour.

“I can see that there are enough people here to seize the Kremlin,” said Mr. Navalny, 35, who listened to the earlier protest on the radio while serving 15 days in jail. “We are a peaceful force and will not do it now. But if these crooks and thieves try to go on cheating us, if they continue telling lies and stealing from us, we will take what belongs to us with our own hands.”

Mr. Navalny especially delighted the crowd with barbed insults of Mr. Putin; indeed, hatred for the prime minister has become a motif at these events. One popular sign read “Putin is our condom,” in a reference to his comments about the white ribbons. Another, painted in the style of Salvador Dalí, showed the prime minister melting in front of a giant clock with the words “Your time has passed.”

“Where is this man?” Mr. Navalny asked. “Can you see him? Is he here?”

He added: “These days, with the help of the zombie-box, they are trying to prove to us that they are big and scary beasts. But we know who they are. Little sneaky jackals! Is that right?” The crowd roared. “Is that true or not?” Another roar.

Pavel Morozov, 23, said he realized that dislodging Mr. Putin might hurt the middle-class quality of life he enjoys. But he said it did not matter. “Putin is a reincarnation of Brezhnev,” he said. He added that while he did not know whether people like Mr. Navalny or the environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova were worthy alternatives, “at least they are an alternative. Anyone now but Putin.”

Former President Mikhail S. Gorbachev told Ekho Moskvy that he thought Mr. Putin should withdraw his bid for the presidency. When asked whether he thought Mr. Putin would give up power voluntarily, Mr. Gorbachev, who was not at the rally, said, “What’s terrible about it?” and noted that he had done so 20 years ago. “Then all the positive that he has done would be safeguarded.”

For organizers, the challenge is to keep the movement alive at all, since the protesters are working people who will leave the city for two soporific weeks in January. Their commitment to politics is unclear; some say that they are willing to demonstrate for years, others that they will lose interest if a leader does not emerge.

“I don’t know what people here want or what they expect from today, but the fact that they are here is important and valuable in and of itself,” said Zinaida Burskaya, 22. “I do feel that it will affect things over the next two to three years. That people have torn themselves from off their couches and have come here and are not apathetic. This may allow for new leaders to emerge.”

Toward evening, the humorist Viktor Shenderovich looked out at the protesters and said, “This toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube.” And they dispersed in a great surge through back streets and alleyways — anarchists and incrementalists, nationalists and bread-and-butter voters waving the hammer-and-sickle flag of the Soviet Union. Marina Shkudyuk, 58, an economist, said she was motivated by rising housing and utility costs, and planned to keep coming out until her demands were satisfied. She said she did not see a leader emerging from the movement, but “at least let there be something different.”

“My family thinks that Grandma has gone crazy,” she said.

 Glenn Kates, Ilya Mouzykantskii and Nikolai Khalip contributed reporting.

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