But two days after a presidential election that gave Vladimir Putin more than 63 percent of the vote and six years in office, the neophyte opposition is being forced to make tactical decisions even before it identifies a long-term strategy. And now its members have split on a basic question: Do they follow the limits on protest set by the authorities or do they push back?
Monday night, most of the 15,000 or more protesters followed the rules. They left Pushkin Square before 9 p.m., when the city-issued permit for the rally expired, observing the strict discipline they have imposed on themselves since early December. They say they don’t want to scare off fledgling protesters with the prospect of jail or give officials any reason to prevent their rallies.
A small group, however, decided they had every right to stay. By 10 p.m., they were being dragged off by riot police dressed in
we-mean-business gear, complete with body armor and batons.
The dissenters were led by Sergei Udaltsov, the 35-year-old head of the socialist Left Front. “I am not leaving the square,” he had declared earlier from the stage, “until Putin leaves.”
When the rally ended, Udaltsov stood near the square’s fountain, joined by Alexei Navalny, the 35-year-old anti-corruption blogger who has inspired many protesters, and Ilya Yashin, 28, who has been active in Strategy 31, a group that demonstrates for freedom of assembly, a right guaranteed by the Russian constitution. A cordon of a few hundred supporters surrounded them. Police said they arrested about 250 people.
The conversation continues
The wisdom of staying in the square was debated on Twitter, where the protest movement has been nurtured, and elsewhere Tuesday.
“Yesterday’s action of Udaltsov and company played into the authorities’ hands,” tweeted Sergei Mitrokhin, a leader of the liberal Yabloko party. “Provocations like that will cut down the number of people coming out to protest.”
Yevgenia Chirikova, leader of an environmental movement, criticized the authorities for making the arrests but questioned staying in the square. It was not a joint decision, she said.
“The irrationality of yesterday’s dispersal outshone the irrationality of sitting in the fountain in the cold weather,” she tweeted.
Ilya Ponomaryov, a member of parliament who has been active in the protests, defended the decision to stay. Those who did were perfectly entitled to do so, he said in an interview Tuesday.