MOSCOW — Anti-government slogans and calls for change resounded in Moscow’s central boulevards Tuesday, suggesting Russian authorities’ recent moves to suppress dissent haven’t dampened the opposition’s spirits.
In the first major protest since President Vladimir Putin began a new six-year term on May 7, Muscovites of all ages and political convictions flooded the city center, chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Enough of KGB rule.”
The event was dubbed the “March of Millions” to symbolize the wave of discontent that has enveloped Russia’s largest cities since disputed parliamentary elections in December. Protest organizers claimed a turnout upward of 100,000 people, while police — known for giving derisory estimates — guessed about 18,000.
Pushkin Square, the starting point for the march, was a sea of colors as participants clutching diverse flags, posters and wet-weather gear gathered about noon. But their lively attire didn’t mask their resentment at the prospect of another 12 years of Putin and his ruling United Russia party.
“I have been to all the recent demonstrations because I hate the authorities. They have stolen so much from the people, they’re just traitors,” said 73-year-old Lev Zavaruyev, a retired fisheries worker.
“We’ve gone through perestroika and there’s still no democracy. Look at all those police vans over there intimidating us,” he added.
Another participant, 26-year-old Web designer Ivan Postoyuk, decried the authorities’ notion of elections as a masquerade and said Russia was becoming a “totalitarian state.”
Further down the two–mile route, Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov addressed a throng of supporters clad in red, calling for a united front against the regime. Udaltsov, who skipped a summons by Russia’s top investigative body in order to attend the protest, said in an interview that Putin is “starting to panic.”
Tuesday’s protest, which fell on the Russia Day national holiday, came on the heels of a concerted effort by Russian authorities to limit opposition protesters’ room to maneuver.
Acting on investigators’ orders, Moscow police on Monday carried out raids on the homes of as many as 15 opposition figures, including those of Udaltsov and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, and said they seized a large quantity of campaign material and anti-government literature.
Amnesty International later condemned the searches as politically motivated.
On Friday, Putin signed into law draconian legislation hiking fines to $10,000 for participants and $30,000 for organizers involved in protests that are unauthorized, attract larger crowds than permitted, or cause damage or injury.
Although no arrests or fines were reported as of Tuesday evening, police maintained a heightened presence all along the protest route, deploying a 12,000-strong team of regular officers, soldiers and Interior Ministry troops.
-- Alexander Winning
Photo: Opposition supporters march during a massive rally in central Moscow on Tuesday. Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko / Associated Press