Thousands of protesters jammed a central Moscow square on September 29 as opposition groups sought to regain momentum following a summer of demonstrations that targeted both local elections but also Russia’s broader political system.
The rally was the first major effort by liberal political groups and allied parties since elections earlier in the month that ended up being a catalyst for the biggest wave of sustained anti-government rallies in nearly a decade.
Instead of elections, the Moscow event was focused on “political repression,” as activists demanded that authorities halt a campaign of raids and arrests targeting anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny and his network of supporters nationwide.
Activists were rallying against harsh police tactics used in earlier demonstrations as well as what many Muscovites say were harsh jail sentences handed down against those detained by police.
Under a cold rain on September 29 , demonstrators walked through metal detectors installed along Sakharov Boulevard before gathering under umbrellas and flags of political parties near a sound stage where leaders were expected to speak.
The rally was authorized by the Moscow mayor’s office, meaning mass detentions by police were less likely.
The nongovernmental organization White Counter estimated about 9,000 people were in attendance at the start of the rally.
In a video posted online ahead of time, Lyubov Sobol, a human rights lawyer and Navalny supporter who was a key organizer of the summer rallies, accused the Russian government of pursuing “political cases” to “frighten the opposition.”
During the near-weekly rallies held in the Russian capital in July and August, more than 3,000 people were detained and many were beaten as police in some cases used force to disperse crowds. The harsh crackdown sparked condemnation from human rights groups and Western governments.
The protests were among the largest in Moscow since a wave of demonstrations in 2011-12 sparked by anger over evidence of electoral fraud and dismay at Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third presidential term.
Moscow, along with many regions and municipalities across Russia, held local and regional elections on September 8 — a test for the Kremlin-allied United Russia party ahead of parliamentary elections in 2021.
Despite the exclusion of dozens of opposition and independent candidates, the September 8 elections delivered a stinging setback to United Russia, which lost 13 seats in the 45-member city council in Moscow.
That outcome was credited in part to Navalny’s so-called Smart Voting strategy, under which he urged Russians to back candidates with the best chance of beating United Russia politicians — all of whom ran as independents in Moscow apparently to hide their affiliation with the party.
Never very popular, United Russia has seen its support fall further amid economic uncertainty and political fallout over moves such as raising the retirement age and hiking the VAT tax rate.
Other unpopular initiatives have included a program to tax long-distance trucking, and crackdowns on protests in many cities over local issues such as waste dumps and construction.
Putin’s ratings have also suffered.
Outside of Moscow, United Russia held its own, winning all regional governorships contested on September 8.
Meanwhile, Russian authorities have used a mix of tactics in an effort to quash the protest sentiment that erupted during summer and prevent it from spreading.
Seven people detained during the protests have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to five years, but prosecutors and courts — widely believed to answer to the Kremlin — have relented to pressure in some cases.