About 1,000 demonstrators demanding a rerun of parliamentary elections gathered in central Moscow today for a second weekend of protests against Russia's fraud-tainted vote, a comparatively small crowd that underlined the challenge to the opposition of keeping up public pressure on authorities.
The turnout was far below the nationwide protests last Saturday in at least 60 cities, including a dramatic gathering of tens of thousands in Moscow, the largest show of public anger in post-Soviet Russia. Demonstrations took place in at least two other cities today.
The protests follow the December 4 national parliamentary elections, in which the ruling United Russia party lost a significant share of its seats in the State Duma, though it retained a narrow majority. Opposition forces claim even that was unearned, supported by reports from local and international observers of widespread vote-count irregularities and outright fraud.
The combination of fraud and United Russia's declining fortunes galvanized opposition groups that have been repressed under Putin's 12 years of rule. After several nights of unauthorized protests that police broke up harshly, Moscow authorities showed unprecedented largesse in granting permission to hold several large protests.
The Russian leadership appeared shaken by the opposition's determination, but its decision to grant permission for the protests could also be a strategy aimed at dissipating the anger with the hope that unhindered protests will eventually fade away.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this week effectively rejected calls to rerun the election, declaring that its result reflected the people's will. The new Duma is to have its opening session on Wednesday.
The opposition, in turn, aims to keep up the pressure with a series of protests, and is placing much hope on a Moscow rally Dec. 24 that organizers believe will attract at least 50,000 people.
Saturday's protest at Bolotnaya Square, on an island in the Moscow River a few hundred meters from the Kremlin, was organized by Yabloko, a liberal party that has been a longtime bit-player in Russian politics. Unlike many liberal groups, it was allowed to register for the parliament elections, but won no seats.
Speakers including party leader Sergei Mitrokhin called for the December 4 election results to be annulled. Mitrokhin also took Putin to task for his televised comments this week in which he claimed protest leaders were acting at the West's behest and sarcastically said he thought the white ribbons many protesters wear as an emblem were condoms.
"Our Prime Minister held a live show on our TV where during five hours he was calling us condoms financed by the State Department, crooks that are trying to steal the country, and I think that this is the reaction that shows he was scared," Mitrokhin told the well-behaved crowd.
Russian news media also reported about 500 people held a protest in the Siberian city of Irkutsk and that about 100 tried for an unauthorized rally in Samara, where four demonstrators were arrested.