In Moscow, a victory for protesters' rights

By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 31, 2011; 6:40 PM

MOSCOW - Protesters gathered here at Triumphant Square on Monday night and quickly declared themselves victorious, despite their small numbers: They had won permission to demonstrate for the third time, hardly anyone was arrested and they were not as desperate as Egyptians.

Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told about 500 demonstrators rallying in support of freedom of assembly on the square outside the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall that it took 30 years for Egyptians to lose patience with President Hosni Mubarak. Russians, he said, have had only 12 years of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"Revolutions are not for Russia," said Nemtsov, who spent 15 days in jail after being arrested at a similar demonstration on New Year's Eve. "Our main aim is free elections. We want Putin to go away - peacefully."

The protest was led by 83-year-old Ludmilla Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and attended by a smattering of young people along with numerous middle-aged and elderly people, some making their way painfully by cane. Police surrounded them - 2,000 had been deployed - and looked intimidating, many in bulletproof vests and helmets, standing shoulder to shoulder and two deep around much of the square. They had brought a fleet of buses, ready to fill with law-breakers.

"This is our only way to tell the authorities what we think," Alexeyeva said in a raspy voice, standing on the back of an open-sided-truck-cum-platform. Victory, she said, lay in being able to demonstrate legally. This was the third time the protesters had received a city permit to rally, with other demonstrations held Oct. 31 and Dec. 31 in honor of Article 31 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. A year ago, police arrested Alexeyeva and carted her off to jail when she dared to demonstrate without a permit.

Although the city had granted permission for 1,000 demonstrators Monday, only about 500 made it to the square. One organizer said police had stopped allowing people through the metal detectors at the only two entranceways into the square before it was filled.

After the police arrested Nemtsov and others as they were leaving the Dec. 31 rally, opposition leaders said they feared authorities were trying to intimidate people into staying away from protests.

About 20 members of the extreme leftist Other Russia Party, who had earlier said its members would gather outside the permitted area, were arrested Monday, including leader Eduard Limonov, 67. He said he objected to being given permission to assemble in an assigned spot when it should be a right to gather.

Limonov, who had made a similar declaration on New Year's Eve, was arrested then as he left his house and spent 15 days in jail.

About a half-dozen speakers addressed the crowd to chants of "Freedom" and "Russia without Putin." Egypt was invoked numerous times, but in a cautionary way.

"We don't want to wait 30 years for Putin to go away," said Viktor Shenderovich, a writer. "We're making our demands peacefully. The alternative is frightening."

Lev Ponomarev, a human rights activist, said there would be another protest March 31, to support not only Article 31, but also Article 32, guaranteeing free elections.

"We need more of you here," he said. "But it is cold. Maybe spring will help us."

After 45 minutes, the protesters slowly gave up their ground and headed off to the train, though they had been officially allotted 60 minutes.

The temperature was 14 degrees.

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