The Irish Times view on protests in Russia: Public defiance

As the swelling numbers at the Moscow rallies suggest, that brutal response may also be strengthening the protest movement itself

 

A protest movement that is rattling Russian authorities shows no sign of abating. Quite the opposite: some 50,000 people took to the streets of Moscow on Saturday for what turned out to be the biggest opposition rally in the city in eight years. The demonstration was billed as an act of defiance against the country’s increasingly repressive law enforcement agencies, who have responded to peaceful protests over the past four weeks with truncheon beatings and large-scale arrests.

Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, had given permission for Saturday’s event, and police stood back as protesters demanded free elections and chanted “Out with Sobyanin” and “Down with the Tsar”. But when, after the officially allocated two hours for the march were up, and a group of mostly young people headed for the city centre to protest outside a municipal building, a now-predictable response ensued: riot police with bats set upon the crowd, dragging individuals off into waiting vans. More than 350 people were arrested, according to OVD-Info, a rights group. Add that number to the 2,300 arrested at two other rallies in recent weeks.

Such heavy-handedness is wildly disproportionate to the demands of the protesters, which are actually quite modest. The demonstrations began earlier this summer after the authorities banned opposition candidates from running in a city council election in the capital for allegedly faking signatures on their applications. The opposition says the signatures are genuine and that Vladimir Putin’s government was seeking to limit its opponents’ influence at local level. What the protesters want is simply for opposition candidates to be allowed on the ballot paper, and for those detained at recent rallies to be released.

That the Putin regime has responded with such aggressive tactics is an indication of its nervousness at a time of widespread discontent over the state of Russia’s economy. As the swelling numbers at the Moscow rallies suggest, that brutal response may also be strengthening the protest movement itself.

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