MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of people defied Kremlin efforts to discourage protests on Tuesday as they rallied against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On Monday Putin launched a pre-emptive strike, as police raided the homes of several prominent protest leaders. They reportedly seized laptops, anti-Kremlin material, and over a million dollars in cash. Those leaders have also been called in for questioning Tuesday, a national holiday in Russia. This will likely prevent them from attending the march and rally.
Authorities said the raids were part of an investigation into violence against riot police during the last protest in May, on the eve of Putin’s inauguration. Analysts, however, say the raids were meant to intimidate the opposition and discourage protests.
Several protestors said Monday’s raids would only motivate the opposition. Though they acknowledged some protest fatigue they said it was important to make sure the Kremlin knows they are still there.
Moscow authorities granted a permission for 50,000 people to gather near Pushkin Square and march to a rally point this afternoon. Opposition leaders, however, remain divided about how best to keep up the momentum and what the next steps should be.
Crowds at protests since Putin won a third term as president in March have been much smaller than the ones that turned out spontaneously in December after the ruling United Russia was accused of massive fraud in parliamentary elections. Such protests would have been unimaginable in Russia just months before.
During the last protest on May 6, tens of thousands of people — an unexpectedly large crowd, but still smaller than December’s turnout — marched to a spot near the Kremlin, but a planned rally never took place. What happened next remains unclear, but a group of protesters tried to advance past lines of riot police, either to try and approach the Kremlin or to spread out into a nearby park.
After a brief sit-in, skirmishes between some protesters and riot police ensued. Rocks, chunks of asphalt, and bottles were thrown at police, who surged into the crowd to grab those who they believed were responsible for the violence. Some appeared to be detained at random, and many who resisted were severely beaten.
By the end of the day, dozens of police were injured, hundreds of protesters were arrested, and a handful of riot helmets were bobbing in the nearby river.
Last week the Russian Parliament passed a controversial law that dramatically increased fines on those who break protest rules, raising them by at least a factor of 100.