In Moscow on Saturday tens of thousands of people came out, despite freezing temperatures, to demonstrate in favour of free, fair, but above all honest, elections. They were protesting in part against the widespread rigging of elections in December, which still cost the United Russia party its overall majority in the Duma. In part, too, they were warning the authorities against trying the same trick at the presidential elections next month, when Vladimir Putin hopes to be returned to the presidency from his current position as Prime Minister. Pro-Putin demonstrators were also out on Saturday.
In the past, several things might have happened. The anti-government protest would have been banned; the riot police would have crack ed heads, and the pro-government marchers would have been co-opted as an advance guard. The result would have been violence, acres of condemnatory coverage in the Western media and diplomatic demarches about violated rights.
This, like other recent protests in Moscow, though, passed off peacefully – and so drew scant attention abroad. In one respect, that is unfortunate. Those justifiably concerned about the conduct of Russia's elections – in December and next month – are not receiving the attention they deserve. If, on the other hand, the authorities are now recognising the right to peaceful protest, that is a welcome advance. President Assad in Syria, and other regimes resorting to force against their own people, should take note.