With Pickets, Russian Protesters Look to Sustain Momentum

MOSCOW — Antigovernment protesters staged a series of pickets across Moscow on Saturday, trying to sustain the momentum of the growing Russian opposition movement that has roiled the capital every weekend for a month.

The atmosphere was far less charged than in previous demonstrations, although the police clashed with protesters on the Arbat, a main tourism and shopping thoroughfare, after several hours. Single pickets are allowed without a permit.

In front of a bronze statue of the late Soviet musician Vladimir Vysotsky, a protester stepped forward every few minutes to hold up a small sign bearing a slogan such as “Time for change,” “Respect the Constitution or, more provocatively in English, “Moscow 2019 = Selma 1965.”

“In Soviet times I would not have been able to stand here,” Yevgeny Grinkrug, a Russian retiree, told reporters swarming around him as he held the small sign about change. “But since they are trying by all means to drag us back there, I think that it is time to start seriously resisting.”

ImageThis month signifies 20 years since Valdimir V. Putin was appointed prime minister under President Boris N. Yeltsin. Mr. Putin has remained the main figure in Russia ever since.
CreditPool photo by Evgenia Novozhenina

The main demands of the protesters were for Moscow to allow opposition candidates to run in municipal elections next month and for people facing charges from previous demonstrations, whom they called “political prisoners,” to be released.

“For now, these are not national protests, but there is a semblance of national solidarity,” said Sergei S. Mitrokhin, a former Parliament deputy from the Yabloko party who made it onto the ballot for the election because of a court order.

On the Arbat, the police charged into a cafe to detain Olga Misik, a 17-year-old who had become a symbol of previous protests after she stood in front of a line of helmeted riot police reading the Constitution, Russian news outlets reported. After the crowd began chanting her first name, she was released, but officers grabbed at least one protester, the reports said, as well as 12 demonstrators in the northern city of St. Petersburg.

The Communist Party, which is nominally an opposition movement but mostly supports the Kremlin, held a separate, authorized rally in support of clean elections, as well. Several thousand people turned out, some waving the party’s red flag.

Demonstrations have occurred in central Moscow every weekend since July 14, when the Moscow Election Commission rejected some 17 opposition candidates from running for seats on the municipal council. About 2,500 people have been detained, with most released but a few facing up to eight years in jail on charges of fomenting “mass unrest.” Several opposition figures remain jailed on short sentences.

CreditAlexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

With the wind and sweeping rain pushing yellow leaves along the sidewalks on Saturday, there was a feeling of fall in the air. With it came the question of whether the protests could be sustained past the Sept. 8 elections that had inspired them.

For some, the answer was decidedly yes. The protests have not really focused on President Vladimir V. Putin as such, but the question of what comes after him looms in the background. Mr. Putin is not allowed to seek a fifth term as president after 2024.

This month signifies 20 years since Mr. Putin was appointed prime minister under President Boris N. Yeltsin, with little expectation that the former K.G.B. foreign intelligence offer would have much staying power. But Mr. Putin has remained the main figure in Russia ever since, even during the four-year interlude when term limits forced him to cede the presidency and become prime minister before retaking power in 2012.

That sleight of hand inspired the previous round of large street protests, which Mr. Putin ended with a combination of harsh crackdown and renewed nationalism. The 2014 annexation of Crimea fueled a surge in support for him that has now worn off.

Mr. Putin’s fallback position has always been that, without him, the chaos of the 1990s would return. At the forefront of the current protests, however, is a younger generation that was either schoolchildren in the 1990s or not even born. Mr. Putin is the only leader they have ever known, and for them the protests are more about shaping their country.

CreditMaxim Zmeyev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Who wants to endanger themselves at rallies, drag themselves to court in the morning, put their reputation at stake and receive threats?” wrote the wildly popular rapper Oxxxymiron, whose real name is Miron Fyodorov and who has been outspoken against police brutality. “People do this not because they want to,” he said, “but because they feel responsible for their country.”

Mr. Putin has few popular young figures who rally around him, and he alienated many middle-aged Russians last year by raising the retirement age. Still, some political analysts suggested that by focusing too narrowly on the Moscow elections, the protest movement risks running out of steam after the September vote, when the stated cause will effectively be over.

Residents across Russia are agitated by prices, pensions, social security and environmental protection, all issues that the protests have not addressed, Aleksei V. Makarkin, an astute political analyst, noted in a Facebook post.

“If by the autumn, the opposition succeeds in integrating these themes into its agenda, then the situation could become serious,” Mr. Makarkin wrote. “If not, then the protest will be significant but local — and therefore over time will whither rather than grow.”

There is little chance that the protests threaten Mr. Putin directly. He has not deigned to acknowledge them. But his spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, commented on them this past week.

CreditEvgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

“We do not agree with those who call what is happening a political crisis,” Mr. Peskov told reporters, while characterizing the police response as “absolutely justified.”

The Kremlin has vast reserves of power that it has yet to deploy beyond police and national guardsmen punching protesters or bludgeoning them with nightsticks.

For that reason, Aleksei A. Navalny, the most prominent opposition figure, has suggested that Russians should focus less on demonstrations and more on what he calls “smart vote.” The idea is for Russians to focus on one person in every race who has the best chance of defeating the candidate from United Russia, the governing power. Rather than dividing the vote, he said, a united effort could defeat government figures.

The weakness seen in that approach is that the government tries to eliminate the strongest political figures well before they can appear on the ballot. The tortured requirements to get on the ballot, particularly the need for valid signatures from thousands of voters, has provided the government the means to disqualify potential candidates.

The effort has been particularly pronounced in Moscow, where the opposition is concentrated and the Kremlin appears determined to prevent any of its most vocal critics from gaining political office, no matter how insignificant.

The same issue emerged in Sevastopol, the Crimean city that has been the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and a bedrock of support for Mr. Putin since he brought it back under Russian control. Yet candidates from an alliance of local residents who have forced two Kremlin-appointed governors to step down are being blocked from running.

In Moscow, the wrangling over the protests continues. City Hall gave a permit for a protest on Aug. 25 in an outlying district. The opposition wants a protest on Aug. 24 in central Moscow, when turnout might be much larger as the summer vacation season will be largely over.

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