Counting the crowds at Russian demos

By bne IntelliNews February 9, 2012

bne -

Just how many people turned out at the two demonstrations in Moscow on February 4? The numbers being bandied about are wildly different, but the true number is extremely important. Photos from the two events suggests the two crowds were about the same size, around 100,000.

The numbers who attended the anti-establishment protest will play a key role for the movement going forward, as the protestors needed to prove they have momentum and can keep up the pressure on the Kremlin in a battle for control that could last for six years if Vladimir Putin wins the presidential election in March. "The Kremlin's view is if the number was under 30,000, then they can completely dismiss the protest movement. If the number was over 50,000, then they have to take it seriously. If it was over 100,000, then they will have to respond," a Kremlin source tells bne.

The police estimate the size of the anti-establishment protest on Bolotnaya square across the river from the Kremlin at 38,000 compared with the pro-government crowd on Poklonnaya Gora of between 90,000 and 160,000. But the organiser of the anti-establishment rally on Bolotnaya square put the crowd size at 120,000 and bne's own reporters at the event also estimated the crowd was at least 100,000 strong.

Independent estimates of the size of the pro-government rally are also far from the "official" count. The Associated Press' reported "only 20,000" and there were many reports of participants being bussed in or paid to attend. In general, most reports (including bne's) were fairly dismissive of the pro-Putin event.

However, blogger Patrick Armstrong released some photos that suggest the pro-government rally was not entirely a staged-managed piece of political theatre and Prime Minister Putin's name can still rally some genuine support.

Here is a photo of the protest at Poklonnaya Gora. With the naked eye, this looks like about 100,000 people. For a more accurate guess, go here to the crowd calculator produced by RIA Novosti. (When the programme loads, hit the button that says НАЧАТЬ and move the tabs at the top around to fit what you estimate the photo to show.)

Mucking about with the calculator, you also get to about 100,000 people at Poklonnaya Gora, depending on how densely you think the crowd was packed - and clearly it was fairly tightly packed. We estimate about 20 people per 10 square metres, which is equivalent to about 120,000 people.

Armstrong makes the point that not everyone in this crowd could have been bussed in: "Consider how many buses it would take to bus them in. If 50,000 were bussed in, that would be more than 1000 buses, which would amount to a tightly-packed line of buses 10 kilometres long or about the distance from Poklonnaya Gora to the Kremlin walls and back again. Surely someone would have noticed!"

Now here is a picture of the first anti-government Bolotnaya square protest on December 10, which was estimated to have 50,000-80,000 attendees. And here is one from the march by the anti-government protestors along Bolshoi Yakimanka on the same day.

While these photos are not conclusive, they do strongly suggest the two protests were of about the same size. And this neatly encapsulates the current political situation, where there is a genuine and sizable protest movement at the same time there is genuine and sizable support for the government. When you take into account the privileged position that Muscovites have in comparison to the rest of the country, then even the numbers balance out a bit more realistically. Of course, the state did bus in people and force state workers to show up. But by the same token the protest is disproportionately large in Moscow. Still, the bottom line is that both sides are now actively voicing their points of view in peaceful and large public demonstrations.

As long as these demonstrations remain peaceful this sort of debate can only be healthy. One cause of concern is that February 4's demonstration took on a more strident anti-Putin tone, whereas at the first demonstration on December 10 against the parliamentary elections the vitriol was directed more at the head of the Election Committee, Vladimir Churov. Secondly, large crowds are inherently destabilising and one spark could set the whole situation alight.

But Russia will have to go through this process of democratising its government at some point and given Russia is relatively prosperous already, now seems as good a time as any.

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