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Moscow protest for jailed activist passes off peacefully
Thursday, 29 December 2011 19:50

Hundreds of protesters gather in Pushkin Square to demonstrate against detention of leftist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov

A protest gathering in central Moscow passed off peacefully and with lower-than-expected numbers, a sign that political passions are perhaps cooling as Russia approaches its 10-day new year holiday.

More than 2,000 people had expressed an intention in social media to attend the gathering on Pushkin Square in support of a jailed activist, Sergei Udaltsov, but fewer than 500 showed up.

Authorities refused permission for a demonstration so the organisers were obliged to hold a public meeting with opposition MP Ilya Ponomaryov, a format which allows no amplification system, no placards and no chanting.

There was a heavy police presence in the square on Thursday and officers warned those present to stop when some began shouting "Freedom to Udaltsov!", but they took no further action.

The soft response suggested the Kremlin has learned its lesson after a protest on 5 December over rigged elections the previous day, which was broken up and resulted in several leading opposition figures being given short jail sentences. That incident inflamed passions and ensured a turnout of at least 40,000 protesters on Bolotnaya Square a few days later.

A third demonstration calling for the election results to be cancelled on 24 December drew around 80,000 Russians to northern Moscow, making it the biggest since the fall of the Soviet Union. However, the opposition lacks a popular candidate to rally around in presidential elections in March, when prime minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win.

Putin ruled out a rerun of the parliamentary elections without a court decision this week, but attempted to project a conciliatory tone, suggesting he could meet for negotiations with the opposition. However, he also remarked that the protest movement was not united, saying: "Is there a common platform? No. Who is there to talk to?"

Alexei Navalny, the lawyer and popular protest blogger, has expressed a wish to negotiate while promising more rallies to keep up the pressure on the ruling elite. However, it is unclear what the format of talks would be.

Cracks seemed to appear today when Navalny tweeted "WHAT IS THIS?" in response to a report that other opposition figures including a former prime minister, Mihail Kasyanov, have agreed to seek talks via the former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, a long-time Putin ally.

Putin may be banking on splits emerging in the opposition camp. Analysts predict his team will use a variety of measures to outwit the protesters, including smear campaigns and the promotion of fake opposition candidates.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a leader of the People's Freedom party, which was banned from taking part in elections on a technicality, attended the gathering at Pushkin Square. He said Putin could still choose to support an early parliamentary vote without cancelling the old one. "If he doesn't do that, he should expect half a million people on the streets next year," he told the Guardian.

Ryzhkov said the opposition was reviewing dates for new mass protests in February and March. The presidential election is to be held on 4 March.

Tom Parfitt

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