MOSCOW (Reuters) – A few thousand Russians took to the streets of central Moscow on Saturday to demand free elections to the capital’s city legislature on Sept. 8, defying a ban which has been enforced with violent detentions during previous protests.
Weeks of demonstrations over elections for the city legislature have turned into the biggest sustained protest movement in Russia since 2011-2013, when protesters took to the streets against perceived electoral fraud.
Chanting “Russia will be free!” and “This is our city!”, protesters marched through one of Moscow’s thoroughfares. Reuters witnesses estimated their number at a few thousand, while Moscow police said only 750 attended the event, which has not been sanctioned by the government, making it illegal.
The demonstrators have been demanding that opposition candidates be allowed to stand in the election. Around 30 of them – mostly running as independents – have been dropped from the race by the election commission which said they had too many fake voter signatures.
The city council is dominated by President Vladimir Putin’s allies.
Protesters are now also calling for the release of activists detained over earlier rallies, and opposition activist Lyubov Sobol on Saturday described the arrests as “mayhem” blaming it on the city government and Putin’s office.
“Sobyanin must resign,” she said at the rally, referring to Moscow mayor and Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin.
The Kremlin has shrugged off the protests as insignificant, but supported the heavy-handed police response. Russia’s state communications watchdog this month asked Google to stop advertising “illegal mass events” on its YouTube video platform.
Although the protests have failed to achieve their main objective, those who showed up on Saturday said they were important as an expression of further civil resistance.
“If we stop going out (and protesting) there will be no hope left at all,” said protester Alexandra Rossius, 23.
“We must show the authorities we are not just going to give up and accept the fact that innocent people are being jailed and elections are being stolen.”
Artyom, a 16-year-old school student, said it was “indignation and fear” that brought him to the rally.
“I do not want … to have my legs broken, to be killed, to be thrown in prison,” he said. “The authorities are refusing to compromise, they have started dispersing people, throwing them in jail. I think this is unacceptable.”
Saturday’s protest, the last before the vote, was smaller than some of the previous ones attended by tens of thousands of people. Although police asked the protesters through loudspeakers to disperse, they made no attempt to detain them.
(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Polina Ivanova; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Clelia Oziel)