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Marching On
Despite Flagging Momentum, the Protest Movement Continues to Try Grassroots Activism
- JRL 2012-106

Tens of thousands of protesters braved the sporadic yet at times torrential rainfall to stage the first major anti-Kremlin rally since President Vladimir Putin's inauguration last month. Replete with many of the same slogans and icons of the previous demonstrations, it continued pushing the limits of public dissent as Putin settles into his third term. But amidst the now typical outpouring of anger at the Kremlin there were hints that grassroots democracy is bubbling ever closer to the surface of the protest movement.

Many had braced for uncertainty before Tuesday's rally, held partly in honor of Russia Day, as signs were sure that a mass crackdown was inevitable. A day earlier investigators had swarmed the homes of key opposition leaders and their families to conduct official searches in connection with the breakout of violence during the opposition rally on May 6. Many top leaders were also summoned for questioning on Tuesday morning in an apparent effort to derail the rally.

Also looming large was the recent anti-protest legislation, signed by Putin late last week, which sets astronomical fines for both ordinary protesters and organizers alike, reaching up to around $30,000. Critics had labeled the move an intimidation tactic meant to scare demonstrators away from taking to streets.

Tuesday's rally, however, passed largely without incident ­ there was no violence, and police reported no arrests. Instead, crowds of demonstrators marched peacefully through central Moscow, from Pushkin Square to Sakharov Avenue, the site of two earlier mass rallies, armed largely with smiles and clever slogans that have characterized the mostly intelligentsia-driven protests since late last year.

But signs that the power of the protests is waning had begun to appear long ago, immediately after Putin's re-election on March 4, and it's a trend that experts say continues to haunt the largely directionless anti-Kremlin movement. "The political agenda of the day is escaping them," said Alexei Mukhin, an analyst at the Center for Political Information. "It's become more of a discussion club for all those who have attended many similar demonstrations, but who probably don't understand anymore why they continue to do it."

The contrast in political commitment was readily apparent on Tuesday. Mixed in with the columns of supporters of various parties and civil organizations, such as Solidarnost, Yabloko and the Left Front, were young urbanite families with toddlers in tow, as well as the unaffiliated pensioners strolling leisurely with their spouses. Likewise, among the black-clad, fist-pumping nationalists were the timid hipsters hoisting their iPads above the crowd to snap photos. Onstage, meanwhile, environmental activist and key opposition leader Yevgenia Chirikova read a list of unrealistic demands that included Putin's ouster and the dissolution of Parliament.

However, there were signs that the protest movement, still in its infancy, has learned a thing or two in recent months about political participation on decidedly unfertile ground. Such was the case with the activists who lined Sakharov Avenue during the assembly, urging fellow Muscovites to choose three questions for an upcoming Moscow City referendum. Participants crowded the stations in droves to fill out questionnaires and highlight what they felt were the biggest issues ­ from the benefits enjoyed by city employees to satisfaction with the Moscow City Council and the ruling United Russia Party.

Dispersed throughout the crowds were also grassroots political activists who have accepted the Kremlin's offer to ease the party registration process. Among them was Sergei Grushko, a 43-year-old independent businessman advocating the newly created Party of the 5th of December (a nod to the inaugural explosion of discontent after last December's parliamentary elections). Invoking today's most visible opposition leaders, Grushko said the new party would steer clear from offering one main candidate, and will instead concentrate on growing its social base.

"We're not attracted to the premium placed on leadership in parties such as the People's Freedom Party and the Republican Party. We believe that a political party should be democratic not only in name, but also in the very way it functions," he said. Grushko added that while the 5th of December would consider a broad coalition with other democratic parties, its main goal is to first establish itself as an independent party.

And in somewhat of a departure from the idealism of the earlier protests on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue, some ordinary protesters appeared to welcome the need for grassroots, rigorous party building ­ even if it means splitting up the already shaky opposition forces. "If you attempt to bring together everyone into one group, it'll be United Russia all over again," said 21-year-old student Vsevolod Chepikov. "You cannot simply organize [politics] into the good versus bad. That's not constructive."

Keywords: Russia, Protests, Politics - Russian News - Russia

Tens of thousands of protesters braved the sporadic yet at times torrential rainfall to stage the first major anti-Kremlin rally since President Vladimir Putin's inauguration last month. Replete with many of the same slogans and icons of the previous demonstrations, it continued pushing the limits of public dissent as Putin settles into his third term. But amidst the now typical outpouring of anger at the Kremlin there were hints that grassroots democracy is bubbling ever closer to the surface of the protest movement.

Many had braced for uncertainty before Tuesday's rally, held partly in honor of Russia Day, as signs were sure that a mass crackdown was inevitable. A day earlier investigators had swarmed the homes of key opposition leaders and their families to conduct official searches in connection with the breakout of violence during the opposition rally on May 6. Many top leaders were also summoned for questioning on Tuesday morning in an apparent effort to derail the rally.

Also looming large was the recent anti-protest legislation, signed by Putin late last week, which sets astronomical fines for both ordinary protesters and organizers alike, reaching up to around $30,000. Critics had labeled the move an intimidation tactic meant to scare demonstrators away from taking to streets.

Tuesday's rally, however, passed largely without incident ­ there was no violence, and police reported no arrests. Instead, crowds of demonstrators marched peacefully through central Moscow, from Pushkin Square to Sakharov Avenue, the site of two earlier mass rallies, armed largely with smiles and clever slogans that have characterized the mostly intelligentsia-driven protests since late last year.

But signs that the power of the protests is waning had begun to appear long ago, immediately after Putin's re-election on March 4, and it's a trend that experts say continues to haunt the largely directionless anti-Kremlin movement. "The political agenda of the day is escaping them," said Alexei Mukhin, an analyst at the Center for Political Information. "It's become more of a discussion club for all those who have attended many similar demonstrations, but who probably don't understand anymore why they continue to do it."

The contrast in political commitment was readily apparent on Tuesday. Mixed in with the columns of supporters of various parties and civil organizations, such as Solidarnost, Yabloko and the Left Front, were young urbanite families with toddlers in tow, as well as the unaffiliated pensioners strolling leisurely with their spouses. Likewise, among the black-clad, fist-pumping nationalists were the timid hipsters hoisting their iPads above the crowd to snap photos. Onstage, meanwhile, environmental activist and key opposition leader Yevgenia Chirikova read a list of unrealistic demands that included Putin's ouster and the dissolution of Parliament.

However, there were signs that the protest movement, still in its infancy, has learned a thing or two in recent months about political participation on decidedly unfertile ground. Such was the case with the activists who lined Sakharov Avenue during the assembly, urging fellow Muscovites to choose three questions for an upcoming Moscow City referendum. Participants crowded the stations in droves to fill out questionnaires and highlight what they felt were the biggest issues ­ from the benefits enjoyed by city employees to satisfaction with the Moscow City Council and the ruling United Russia Party.

Dispersed throughout the crowds were also grassroots political activists who have accepted the Kremlin's offer to ease the party registration process. Among them was Sergei Grushko, a 43-year-old independent businessman advocating the newly created Party of the 5th of December (a nod to the inaugural explosion of discontent after last December's parliamentary elections). Invoking today's most visible opposition leaders, Grushko said the new party would steer clear from offering one main candidate, and will instead concentrate on growing its social base.

"We're not attracted to the premium placed on leadership in parties such as the People's Freedom Party and the Republican Party. We believe that a political party should be democratic not only in name, but also in the very way it functions," he said. Grushko added that while the 5th of December would consider a broad coalition with other democratic parties, its main goal is to first establish itself as an independent party.

And in somewhat of a departure from the idealism of the earlier protests on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue, some ordinary protesters appeared to welcome the need for grassroots, rigorous party building ­ even if it means splitting up the already shaky opposition forces. "If you attempt to bring together everyone into one group, it'll be United Russia all over again," said 21-year-old student Vsevolod Chepikov. "You cannot simply organize [politics] into the good versus bad. That's not constructive."


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