ome 20,000 people gathered on a central Moscow avenue Saturday to contest Vladimir Putin’s sweeping victory in presidential elections last weekend.
But the turnout, while unheard of for an opposition protest in Russia just four months ago, marks a sharp drop in support for the country’s newly formed protest movement, used to gathering crowds of up to 100,000.
Lining the entire stretch of a broad, kilometer-long forecourt on downtown Moscow’s Novy Arbat street, demonstrators waved white ribbons – the symbol of the protest movement – and brandished colorful placards bearing anti-Putin slogans.
The organizers of the demonstration called for fresh elections and deep political reform during two hours of speeches to muted cheering from the crowd.
“These authorities are illegitimate. The same people are in power, the same people who took away our right to choose, the same people who destroyed freedom of speech and political competition,” said protest organizer Vladimir Ryzhkov.
While most of the speeches focused on the violations recorded by monitors in last Sunday’s presidential elections, when Putin won nearly 64 percent of the vote, some attempted to clarify a question that troubles many protestors: where the movement will go now that it has failed to stop Putin securing another term.
“We need to quickly establish what we are protesting for - for judicial reform, for social improvements for youth, for free media, and for comprehensive political reform,” said popular TV host Ksenia Sobchak.
There was a deflated air to the event, with many protestors admitting that the movement had lost its focus now that the elections are over.
“There is certainly a trend towards diminishing numbers. I think people are starting to give up hope that anything can be achieved,” Lidia Mishenka, a student in her early 20s told The Moscow News. “I sincerely hope the movement won’t die out but, honestly, I’m not convinced it can achieve anything now.”
The last big sanctioned weekend protest by the opposition in Moscow attracted a crowd of over 100,000 people, despite temperatures around minus 20. Saturday’s weather was around zero.
Police put the turnout this time at around 10,000, while opposition leaders estimated 25,000. Moscow authorities had sanctioned some 50,000 people to take part.
In contrast to a small opposition protest Monday, where some 250 people were arrested, Saturday’s demonstration passed off peacefully without a single arrest. However, Left Front Leader Sergei Udaltsov was arrested after the event along with a dozen protesters when he attempted to hold an impromptu meeting on Pushkin Square.
Protestor Mikhail Tyoplenky said he felt the public were less angered by alleged violations in last weekend’s elections than they were following parliamentary elections in December.
“During the parliamentary elections there were a lot of obvious violations, which angered the whole population,” Tyoplenky said “This time round they [the authorities] made it look a lot cleaner – the violations were less obvious.”
How the movement will proceed now is as yet unclear. Udaltsov, of the Left Front, called for a mass protest on May Day, ahead of Putin’s inauguration - which is scheduled for May 7.
“Now it is up to the people on the street to decide what will happen,” Udaltsov told journalists as he left Novy Arbat. “If we don’t want to put up with crooks and thieves for the next six years, we need to solve this problem no later than May 1.