(MOSCOW) — With hundreds of police looking on, Russian opposition activists staged an unauthorized protest against President Vladimir Putin in downtown Moscow on Saturday, defying threats of arrest in an event that marked the one-year anniversary of the unprecedented challenge to Putin’s rule.
In a symbolic move, some demonstrators arrived bearing flowers, which they laid in front of a memorial for victims of Stalin’s crackdown. Some left after placing their bouquets, fearful of being arrested because the gathering was deemed illegal.
The event lacked the energy that marked previous protests, which had featured speeches, banners, and flags, and some of the demonstrators left after placing their bouquets, fearful of being arrested because the gathering was deemed illegal.
Those that remained behind were mostly silent, milling about the square talking to the crowd of journalists that at times appeared to outnumber demonstrators.
“I am here today to show my government that people are not satisfied with their politics and that we are together and we have power,” said Sofia Feoktistova, a university student who said she also did not agree with everything the opposition leaders have proposed.
She said she was nervous about clashes with police, but quickly added: “I think that we can show our government that we are not afraid of them.”
Hundreds of police formed a ring around the square to prevent anyone from marching, but for the most part did not interfere. Riot police waited nearby.
Protest leaders Sergei Udaltsov and Alexei Navalny were detained by police shortly after arriving, but it was 90 minutes before police moved in to detain others. That prompted chants of “Shame!” from the opposition members who remained, but the chanting quickly died down.
Finally, after about two hours, police cleared the square. According to Russian news reports about 40 people were arrested.
Saturday’s protest was noticeably smaller than previous ones, which were attended by tens of thousands of people. Police, who usually underestimate the size of the demonstrations, reportedly said about 2,000 people showed up. Accurate crowd counts were difficult to determine, in part because some people came late and left quickly after placing their flowers.
Turnout may have also suffered because, unlike previous protests, this one was illegal and police warned they would arrest anyone who showed up. New laws, passed since President Vladimir Putin was inaugurated earlier this year, sharply increased penalties for unsanctioned gatherings.
The protest movement has been struggling to maintain its momentum after Putin won re-election in March despite the unprecedented demonstrations against him. The opposition has remained deeply divided. Right-wing nationalists have shared the stage with liberal democracy advocates and communists, all of whom agreed on little more than their dislike of Putin and the pervasive corruption in government.
Violence between protesters and riot police broke out during a march on the eve of his inauguration in May, marking a new turn in the Kremlin’s response. Since then, the ruling United Russia party has passed several new laws that many say were a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate the opposition.
Authorities also began to roll out charges against several protest leaders, and police raided the homes of several prominent opposition members, accusing them of various crimes, including money laundering and tax fraud.
On Friday, authorities announced fraud charges against Navalny and his brother and investigators said they were questioning Udaltsov about claims that he received money from officials in neighboring Georgia to stir up trouble in Russia.
The protest on Saturday was unsanctioned after organizers were unable to agree on a protest route with the city. Temperatures were well below freezing all afternoon, which also may have contributed to the lower turnout.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Rafael Romo and Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
Arthur Brice, CNN
Billy Hallowell, Deseret News