Leading article: Putin's mobile army of critics

 

Reports varied dramatically as to exactly how many people massed in Moscow's Pushkin Square yesterday. At least one of the anti-government demonstration's organisers put the figure up beyond 100,000; the authorities, more soberly, suggested attendance at the "March of the Millions" was nearer 10,000. No matter. It is enough that, even at the lowest estimate, many thousands defied the increasingly heavy-handed pressure on Russia's burgeoning protest movement. President Vladimir Putin would do well to review his strategy accordingly.

When Mr Putin returned to the presidency in March, he had a decision to make. Until then, his response to months of rumbling discontent had been inconsistent, veering from wild talk of a "battle for Russia" with foreign forces bent on its destabilisation, to – somewhat implausibly – claims that he welcomed dissent because it kept up pressure on the Kremlin to do a good job. Once in office, however, Mr Putin's choice was simple: crack down, or seize the opportunity for reform.

After a few hopeful early signs, recent events all point alarmingly to the former. Last week, the President rushed through legislation hiking fines for public order offences. Then came the aggressive dawn raids on prominent opposition figures' homes – in connection with a protest last month – just the day before the planned (and entirely legal) Moscow demonstration. Paralysing attacks on a number of opposition news websites yesterday hardly helped dispel the sense of a disturbing reversion to type.

It is, of course, possible that Mr Putin stands aloof from such developments. Possible, but unlikely. And he must take responsibility for them, either way. That so many turned up to yesterday's march suggests that discontented Russians will not easily be cowed. As does Monday's top-trending Twitter hashtag, named after the bloodiest year of Stalin's purges. Mr Putin looks like a man running out of patience. But he must think again. This is not 1937; thanks to mobile phones, blogs and social networking sites, the genie cannot simply be forced back into the bottle. In both Russia's interests, and his own, he should not try.

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