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Moscow marches - but not for long

Street DemonstrationNo sooner had the placards and protestors headed home from Pushkinskaya Ploshchad than it emerged that Moscow's brief autumn of discontent could soon fall victim to the winter chill.

Saturday's rally, demanding the departure of Vladimir Putin from the prime minister's office, was the latest in a line of high-profile authorised protests which began with the Khimki forest rally hosted by Yury Shevchuk in late August.
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And last week opposition group Strategy 31 was given permission to protest in Triumfalnaya Ploshchad for the first time after years of conflict with the authorities.

But anyone hoping that Sergei Sobyanin's arrival in the mayor's office will herald a new era of freedom of expression could be in for a rude shock.

The Duma has been preparing laws to clamp down on freedom of assembly, and analysts say there is no need to think the authorities have suddenly warmed to public criticism of the government.

Gathering clouds

"They are afraid the number of demonstrations will grow and at some point become dangerous," Panorama think tank head Vladimir Pribylovsky told The Moscow News.

Saturday's demonstration drew a large crowd, with organisers claiming 2,000 came, producing photos which make a mockery of official reports putting the figure closer to 300. It came the day after a second reading in the State Duma of a bill that would ban individuals convicted of administrative offences from staging rallies for a year from the day they were convicted, Interfax reported.

This encompasses minor infringements such as speeding, fire safety violations and travelling on public transport without a ticket, as well as offences related to organising public gatherings.

The bill also allows authorities to move rallies from their chosen sites if they raise traffic issues.

"It seems that deputies and the authorities are very afraid at the power of our protests," Russian automobile association leader Sergei Kanayev told gzt.ru after parliament discussed restricting protests on the roads.

Time will tell

The apparent flowering of opposition rallies since Sobyanin came to office looks like nothing more than a short-lived thaw. Analysts say there is no serious city hall support for protests and, the orders to crack-down always came from the Kremlin, Radio Liberty reported.

Underlining the on-going problems, Monday morning talks between Moscow City authorities and Moscow Helsinki Group head and Strategy 31 leading light Lyudmila Alexeyeva broke down without agreement.

She was disputing the authorities' decision to cap the number of participants at this Sunday's rally to 200 people.

Government intentions and attitudes will remain inscrutable. "The behaviour of the authorities is not rational and does not depend on political trends," said Pribylovsky.

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