An anti-government protest in Moscow on May 6, the day before Russian president-elect Vladimir Putin's inauguration, turned violent, with more than 400 arrested after they clashed with police.
The showdown was almost inevitable, as the protest leaders have become increasing frustrated with their ineffectiveness against the Kremlin's political juggernaut, which is simply rolling over their calls for more accountability and representation in government. One demonstrator's poster summed up the problem: "Create a party or I am going to the dacha."
A crowd of 20,000 people gathered to march through central Moscow, but trouble started when some leaders attempted to wheel off the approved route. Baton-wielding police moved in and began to arrest marchers, who answered with a hail of bottles and stones. According to reports, 29 riot police and some 50 protestors were injured in the fracas and 436 people were arrested, including opposition leaders Sergei Udaltsov, Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov.
The amorphousness of the movement is both its strength and weakness. Sunday's crowd was small by comparison to the 100,000 that turned out in the depths of winter, and rapidly rising incomes and a buoyant economy have undermined the opposition's ability to rally the middle classes that form the core of the movement's support.
Without a clear programme or leadership, the movement is becoming frustrated by its inability to sustain itself in the face of improving living conditions, but like most opposition movements it is fissiparous and prone to whims of the different personalities at its top.
Provoking violence is one way to refocus the public's attention on the cause and a simple way to throw the Kremlin into a poor light. The march started peacefully with some protestors bringing their children to the event, but problems started when Udaltsov and others turned off the approved route and attempted to march under the walls of the Kremlin - a provocation that the police were unlikely to ignore.
Police then detained protesters who had remained peacefully on the square across the river from the Kremlin where they had permission to gather. Two of the opposition leaders were dragged away while addressing the crowd and the third before he could take the stage.
The riot will make good pictures and useful propaganda, but this is not a tactic to sustain the movement. The small size of the crowd and the obviously provocative tactics will make is easy for the Kremlin to dismiss the fighting as the work of extreme elements and few Muscovites are ready to go to the barricades yet. The time has come for the opposition to form a party and decide on a leadership that can pursue a coordinated and simple list of demands. Simply marching is now producing diminishing returns and threatens to alienate protestors who in the main have never wanted them to become violent.
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