Tens of thousands have attended a demonstration in Moscow to protest at the conduct of last weekend’s elections. Despite the logistical and security challenges, the event passed off remarkably peacefully and with no confrontations with police.
The rally was initially scheduled to be held at Revolution Square, but when it became apparent that large numbers would be involved, the Moscow authorities suggested moving the event to Bolotnaya Square, which is situated on a large island in the Moscow River.
However, many still turned up at the original gathering point, some because they weren’t aware of the relocation, others because they wanted to see what was going on in both places. Police and rally organizers managed the transfer of thousands of people from one square to the other circumventing the Kremlin, which had been cordoned off, without disrupting the flow of traffic in central Moscow.
Officers of the law also showed a high degree of resolve, ignoring insults hurled by several of the more militant-minded protesters, even though, technically, they had the right to detain the hot-heads.
At one point police warned the crowds against using the Luzhkov Bridge, one of several adjacent to Bolotnaya Square. The pedestrian walkway being quite old, the authorities police feared it might not withstand the weight of the crowds walking over it in tight rows. Police restricted access to the bridge, while two rescue boats were put on alert nearby.
Estimates of the number of people at the protest vary, with the police putting the figure at more than 20,000, while journalists and organizers said there were more than 40,000. However, the largest protest in Moscow since 1993 went remarkably peacefully.
One of the few incidents was blamed on a group of nationalist activists who lit several flares in the crowd. Other protesters were quick to call the police and hand over the provocateurs. Two people were reportedly ejected from the square in the wake of the potentially dangerous pyrotechnic show.
In a separate incident, heavy smoke covered a small area on the square with initial reports saying a smoke bomb had been let off. It turned out to be another flare which had been lit and then dropped inside a mobile toilet. The fire was quickly extinguished and no-one was hurt.
Finally, some reports said an attempt had been made to use a signal flare gun to shoot down a drone helicopter which was circling over the rally. The culprit may have thought the drone was being used for surveillance. In actual fact, it belonged to a news website which was streaming pictures and video of Bolotnaya Square.
Saturday’s rally was in sharp contrast to some other opposition gatherings in Russia. Often unauthorized, they were marred by provocations and subsequent crackdowns by riot police. This time, despite a high-profile police presence, not a single instance of confrontation was reported.
One of the organizers even went so far as to thank the force for “acting like police in a democratic country should,” as the rally was wrapping up. Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin also praised the work of the police.
According to official reports, there were no arrests at the Moscow rally.