December 10's protest in central Moscow came to a peaceful end shortly before the 6:00pm deadline imposed by the authorities. Police lined the street two deep on the routes away from Bolotnaya Square, while several thousand remained listening to kitschy pop music. There was something of a party atmosphere intermixed with protestors holding up placards protesting against the results of December 4's Duma elections, won narrowly by the ruling United Russia party and only with fraudulent help, and calling on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to leave office.
Media attention on this week's protests, billed as the biggest since the fall of the Soviet Union, has been intense, with the entire embankment opposite the venue of the protest lined with TV trucks. However, the crowd was well behaved throughout, chanting slogans such as "Russia without Putin" and "Vote again."
Opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov called for a repeat protest at the same venue on December 24 (given it is on Christmas eve in the West means it won't garner as much international attention), which he told the crowd would be twice as big, to cheers and clapping.
Estimates of the exact number in attendance at the protest vary widely, from the police estimates of about 25,000 to the organisers' claim of 100,000. However, from bne's observation it seemed to be about 30,000 strong, which was the same number that indicated on social media they would come. (Another 10,000 people gathered in St Petersburg, the biggest of the regional protests that happened concurrently with the Moscow protest.) By about 4:00pm, protestors were beginning to drift away, but at least 20,000 remained at the site until the end.
To make a snap analysis, the number of people that showed up was not enough to reach critical mass to spark an Arab-like revolution. Talking to people in the crowd, it's clear that many Muscovites are frustrated and tired of the current leadership, rather than angry. And anger is what you need to start a revolution.
Attention now turns to that follow-up demonstration, but from the mood of the crowd it's not clear whether that one will be bigger or even match today's protest.
The Kremlin has played its hand well. There was a massive police presence - police formed a solid wall from the square right the way across the bridge and around the Kremlin - but there was no provocation by the crowd and the police were impassive. By avoiding any violence, the Kremlin hasn't enraged the protestors, which would have only fanned the flames and turned frustration to anger.
Having said that, the protest was a huge success in that it happened at all and it was so large. It has been an enormous slap in the face for Putin and his regime. The Kremlin will need to respond. Putin's reaction so far has been to reach for the Soviet-era playbook and blame the US and the CIA for sponsoring the protests - something that you usually hear from the likes of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. In Russia, these claims ring hollow and will only make matters worse. The Kremlin will have to come back with some real reforms and increase freedoms if it is to placate the population. If Putin doesn't, then this problem will only fester, until it eventually explodes over some other issue or election.
There will be some hard thinking in the Kremlin and the shape of the 2012 presidential campaign, which has yet to start, will be telling. Especially interesting will be whom is put up as opposition candidates. Will Putin dare allow a real choice for voters? He would probably still win even if a proper opponent runs and he needs desperately to get a real mandate. But the prospects of this are slim and the likelihood is the Kremlin will increase public spending, but tighten its control over the political process.
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