Opposition Rally Draws Tens of Thousands in Moscow

Posted June 12th, 2012 at 8:50 pm (UTC-5)
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Tens of thousands of Russian anti-government protesters have taken part in a major rally in Moscow during a national holiday to denounce President Vladimir Putin's third term in office.

Tuesday's rally was the first to be called by the opposition since Mr. Putin took office on May 7 and began tightening a government crackdown on dissent.

In comments marking Russia Day, President Putin said that Russia cannot accept anything that weakens the country or divides society.

Police estimates say up to 20,000 participated in the march that a VOA correspondent described as peaceful. Protest organizers put the number of participants at above 100,000.

Russian authorities forced several protest leaders to appear for questioning as the mass demonstration began Tuesday. Opposition leader Sergey Udaltsov was one of them.

“I had to be here (at the Investigation Committee) at 11.00, but I let the investigator know that I would not turn because of the important reason – that I am the organizer of a 'march of millions'. I was at the march and it was very respectable. I think more than 120,000 people were there, it was all very organized, disciplined. We disproved the myth that we are provokers and extremists which the authorities were planting after May 6.”

The protest ended peacefully after about six hours.

American political analyst Jeff Mankoff told VOA that the protesters have not achieved any micropolitical goals, but they think they have demonstrated that the government support is not universal, and that it may be weaker than six months ago, or a year ago.

“The government faces a kind of dilemma, and I think they are trying to walk that line between trying to maintain order without being seen as cracking down so hard that they then actually create more disorder than they are preventing.”

The demonstration was sanctioned by the government, but police raided the homes of several prominent activists on Monday and ordered four to appear for questioning Tuesday. The United States has criticized the raids on the eve of demonstrations.

Udaltsov ignored the summons to join the start of the rally, while dissidents Alexei Navalny, Ilya Yashin and Ksenia Sobchak appeared at the investigation office as ordered.

Russian news agencies said investigators had no plans to sanction Udaltsov for skipping the questioning.

Tuesday's protest was timed to coincide with Russia Day, which marks the occasion of June 12, 1990, when Russian lawmakers decided that Russian laws should take precedence over those of the Soviet Union. Russian Internet users angered by the crackdown also likened it to the repression of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, posting Twitter messages mentioning 1937, the year of his greatest repression.

In a move to pressure the opposition, Mr. Putin signed a law on Friday that dramatically increases fines on people who participate in unauthorized protest actions.

Mr. Putin was elected to a record third presidential term in March. He served two terms as president from 2000 to 2008 before switching to the role of prime minister due to constitutional limits on consecutive presidential terms. A subsequent constitutional amendment extended the term of a Russian president to two consecutive six-year periods, meaning Mr. Putin could stay in power until 2024.