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.
As the riot police approached, Ponomaryov, a former Communist turned social democrat, announced that as a State Duma deputy he had the right to stand in Pushkin Square and talk to his constituents. The police neither listened to him nor arrested him.
“The law was on our side,” he said. “The arrests were a violation of the law.”
Ponomaryov disagreed that arrests would give the authorities an excuse to clamp down, although on Tuesday, as organizers were requesting permission for another rally Saturday, a deputy mayor warned that their behavior Monday would be taken into account.
“If they want to find an excuse, they will,” Ponomaryov said.
In a radio interview Tuesday, Boris Akunin, a well-known mystery writer, said the arrests meant the end of peaceful rallies and marches. He blamed the authorities.
“I believe we should not organize our march on the 10th of March because this will cause aggression by the authorities,” he said. “I was at the rally at Pushkin Square. Everything was calm and peaceful. I left and watched the later events online.
“I was stunned — I just could not understand why the authorities and Putin would want to do all this.”
Criticism in the aftermath
Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency, also left the rally before the arrests. He defended those who stayed, criticizing the police for rounding up people simply standing in the square, with no placards or slogans.
“Today’s events on Pushkin halted the tradition of peaceful opposition rallies,” he wrote on Facebook. “The authorities are responsible for citizens’ security and a conflict-free settlement of such situations.”
Navalny and Udaltsov were charged with permit violations and face fines of about $70. Yashin, charged with disobeying a police order, could get 15 days in jail. On Tuesday, prosecutors said they were considering other charges against some detainees, including inciting mass disorder, which carries a possible two-year jail sentence. One woman knocked down by police broke her arm in two places.
“Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin Square,” U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul tweeted.
The Russian Foreign Ministry differed, tweeting that the Russian police at Pushkin Square were far more humane than the U.S. police who dispersed Occupy Wall Street protesters.
Certainly, a line has been crossed. On Tuesday night, news agencies reported that a dozen or more young people were arrested at Pushkin Square, accused of trying to start an unauthorized opposition rally. Others were being detained in St. Petersburg, at St. Isaac’s Square.
Organizers wonder how much risk they can ask their many middle-class professional followers to take if rallies become illegal. But without rallies, they worry, enthusiasm for change might languish, easing the pressure on the government.
“If the authorities again obstruct our choice of venue, this could prompt a host of unsanctioned protest rallies,” Gennady Gudkov, a rally organizer and member of parliament, told reporters. “The authorities are displaying cruelty when they should have displayed wisdom.”