Anti-Putin rally in Moscow disappoints with poor turnout
Anti-Putin rally disappoints with only a few thousand marchers, as protesters complain of an uninspiring opposition leadership
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The opposition had trumpeted the protest as the "March of Millions", and the authorities were ready, deploying thousands of riot police in full gear all around the centre of Moscow, blocking key streets with heavy trucks and sending police helicopters hovering back and forth.
But as night fell on Saturday, only 20,000 people at most had shown up for a litany of somewhat listless chants, speeches and songs against President Vladimir Putin, before going home past endless lines of riot police visibly bored for lack of action.
After a long summer break from massive protests that had galvanized the opposition, the anti-Putin movement was eager to demonstrate a powerful comeback in the eyes of the Kremlin and Russia. Just a day before the rally, a key member of the opposition had been stripped of his post in parliament, and leaders were hoping that protesters would be fired-up over that move to choke off dissent and the imprisoning of more than a dozen activists.
Instead, a smallish crowd marched a few miles across downtown Moscow displaying the requisite white flags of the liberals, the yellow-white-and-black flags of the nationalists and the red banners of the communists under grey skies.
"It is the same old tune and the same old song which changes nothing, but the crowd grows thinner and thinner," said Tatiana Smirnova, a 47-year-old homemaker who has been a regular attendee since last winter's protests, which drew more than 100,000 people infuriated over alleged cheating in December parliamentary polls.
"I didn't hear any new slogans or ideas today," she said, "and I don't see much point in coming here again unless they find a way to change something."
Smirnova recalled coming to one of the rallies in the same spot last year when the whole stretch of the wide avenue was thick with people.
"Today you can see that it is full only to its quarter or so," she said with a disappointing sigh.
Opposition leaders refused to concede the striking lack of protesting masses, but some acknowledged the lack of drive.
"There are more and more of us here, or at least not less," Alexei Navalny, a charismatic opposition leader and a popular blogger who is facing an embezzlement investigation, said in his speech. But he went on to say: "We are lacking personal fury in this struggle!"
Navalny said that he wanted everyone present to look into the mirror in the morning and ask what he or she was ready to do for freedom and the protection of dignity. Then he added, looking up at a helicopter flying low overhead: "You can do a lot, for example shoot down this helicopter …" The crowd chuckled, but he quickly corrected himself: "It was a joke!"
His colleague Boris Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, was more to the point, but his speech was not exactly an eye-opener.
Nemtsov suggested that the current parliament "should be thrown away to a dump". He also demanded that political prisoners be immediately freed.
At least one pro-Kremlin observer said it was "a bitter defeat of the opposition".
"The wind got out of the opposition sails, and the Kremlin should celebrate its victory," Sergei Markov, a Putin adviser, said. "We can talk today about a serious crisis of the opposition that still lacks a coherent programme and still fails to formulate new political demands."
When the crowd was dispersing at the end of the day, a pro-Kremlin youth stood on the pavement with a mocking placard that read: "You are millions, but we are a countless multitude."