Russia’s opposition yesterday defiantly vowed to stage a mass protest in Moscow tomorrow contesting the results of elections, despite warnings from the authorities to scale down the event.
About 1,000 people have been arrested in three days of demonstrations protesting what they say was mass fraud in the parliamentary polls. The election was won by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, though with a sharply reduced majority and less than half the vote.
Concerns over the conduct of the elections have intensified, with the last president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, saying that they should be re-run and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton complaining the polls were not fair.
The elections were seen as a litmus test of Putin’s popularity ahead of his planned return to the Russian presidency in elections scheduled for March. The opposition said the results for United Russia would have been far worse in free polls.
More than 20,000 people have pledged on a Facebook page called “for honest elections” to attend the protest tomorrow afternoon in Revolution Square, just meters from the Kremlin.
While the rally is officially sanctioned by the authorities, the permission is for a maximum of 300 people, raising the prospect that it could be broken up by anti-riot police if greater numbers show up.
“They have said 300. If more come then we will bring the organizers to responsibility,” Moscow Deputy Mayor Alexander Gorbenko told Moscow Echo radio, suggesting also that a different location could be found.
However, former Cabinet minister and leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov said the protest had to go ahead.
“The authorities are trying to intimidate their own people and doing everything to ensure the meeting does not take place,” he said.
The Facebook page emphasizes that the protest will be peaceful and tells participants to bring balloons and flowers and pin white ribbons to their coats.
However, late on Wednesday, the municipal water company Mosvodokanal announced that urgent underground water works needed to take place beneath the square, repairs that would severely impede any demonstration.
The first demonstration on Monday after Sunday’s polls took the authorities by surprise. Since then police in anti-riot gear, interior ministry troops and armored police trucks have become a visible presence in the city center.
About 300 people were arrested in the first night of protests and more than 550 in the second protest, a night later. Dozens were also detained after a smaller attempt at a protest on Wednesday evening.
Leading opposition figures, including the blogger Alexei Navalny have already been handed 15-day jail terms. The Kommersant daily said it was unclear how many of those detained were still being held but it appeared that dozens of similar sentences had been handed out.
“The scale of arrests has not been in any way justified,” Amnesty International said. “We fear that the Russian police are simply quashing opposition protest, no matter how peaceful.”
Neither Putin nor Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have made any comment on the protests. Putin, who became prime minister in 2008 after serving two terms as Russian president, on Wednesday filed his application to stand in the presidential election.
Medvedev, who was visiting the Czech Republic yesterday, held a meeting with the security council of the interior ministry and the FSB security service, but there was no indication the opposition rallies were discussed.