On the heels of the biggest protests Russia has seen in nearly 20 years, the country’s resurgent opposition has given the Kremlin an ultimatum: Annul the Dec. 4 election that many see as marred by fraud and call a fresh vote, or face even larger protests in the weeks to come. That is, if the country’s fractious opposition can maintain its new-found unity that long.
Moscow’s streets – normally bustling with everything but politics – are set to see a flurry of rallies between now and the opposition’s Dec. 24 deadline for a new election date to be set. The opposition also wants to see Vladimir Churlov, chairman of the country’s Central Elections Commission, fired and replaced. He is accused of overseeing systemic fraud, including ballot-box stuffing, voter intimidation and barring all but a handful of officially approved parties from taking part.
The opposition’s demands come on the heels of a breakthrough protest Saturday that saw tens of thousands of people from across the political spectrum gather peacefully within sight of the Kremlin walls to demand new elections. While the crowd was largely young and middle class and organized primarily via Facebook, flags representing liberal democratic and social democratic parties, as well as hard-right nationalists, hard-left communists and a handful of anarchists, were all raised, speaking to the internal divisions that were not quite put aside for the day.
They collectively focused their anger at Vladimir Putin, who has taken the country in an increasingly authoritarian direction since 1999, first as President and now as Prime Minister. Chants of “Russia without Putin!” were the loudest and most frequent of the four-hour protest.
Police estimated the crowd that gathered Saturday on Bolotnaya Square, on an island in the Moscow River, at 25,000. While that would be easily the biggest anti-government demonstration of Mr. Putin’s time in office, the police number seemed to be an underestimate. Organizers put the figure at somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000.
Thousands more gathered in smaller protests that were held in more than 50 other cities across the world's largest country.
“We will continue our rallies and protests on the streets,” Boris Nemtsov, a key leader of the protests, said in a telephone interview. “If Putin rejects our proposal to hold new elections and fire [Mr. Churlov] I believe the Dec. 24 protest will be much bigger, maybe hundreds of thousands of people on the streets.”
Moscow remained tense Sunday as hundreds of nationalists rallied on Bolotnaya Square under the flag of Imperial Russia and thousands of extra police remained on the streets. Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, which is accused of pressuring election officials into manipulating the Dec. 4 parliamentary vote, is calling its supporters into central Moscow on Monday to defend the result and demonstrate the ruling party’s popularity.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is scheduled to swap jobs with Mr. Putin in 2012 under a widely derided agreement between the two men, responded to the swelling protests via his own Facebook page on Sunday, saying he disagreed with much of what was said during Saturday’s rally, but promising an investigation into the widespread allegations of election fraud.
The posting drew 2,500 comments within the first two hours, many of them mocking or insulting the Russian President. “Medvedev, GO AWAY!” was one common sentiment.
Mr. Nemtsov said the opposition would hold rallies on Dec. 17 and 18 to keep up the pressure on the Kremlin. It was unclear, however, whether those protests would take place under the banner of the united opposition, or whether individual parties would take the lead. The liberal Yabloko party had scheduled a demonstration for Dec. 17, while the Communist Party, which came second in the parliamentary election and had a low-key presence at the Saturday protest, is planning a march through the city centre the next day.
Keeping the movement together will be crucial if the protesters hope to pressure Mr. Putin and his government into making concessions. Though a positive mood generally prevailed at the Saturday rally, some protesters gently jeered the leaders of other factions as they took turns speaking from a stage.
The one figure who seems to have cross-factional appeal, nationalist anti-corruption fighter Alexey Navalny, was absent from the protest, serving a 15-day jail sentence for his part in organizing anti-Putin demonstrations earlier in the week.
“I think [Saturday]was a great day for us, because the opposition was united. … I believe a coalition of different parties, together with civil activists, is what we need right now,” said Mr. Nemtsov, who is a leader of the People’s Freedom Party, a liberal democratic movement that was barred from taking part in the election.
But he made clear that the alliance is a temporary one. “If we will be successful, and there will be free elections, we will go our separate ways. Social democrats will go one way, liberal democrats will go our way and nationalists will go their way.”
Andrei Piotkovsky, a veteran political analyst who is now a member of the Solidarity movement organizing the protests, said that it was Mr. Putin himself who was keeping the opposition together in the meantime.
“They’re not unified by our organizational skills. They’re organized by the common cause. It’s a very, very positive development,” he said. “They’re unified by their desire to play within the rules of democracy, and by their opposition to the Putin regime.”