It did not take long for Vladimir Putin, the winner of Sunday’s Russian presidential election, to reassert his authority over the country’s opposition: less than 24 hours in fact.
On Monday evening, about 14,000 people, from across the political spectrum – from nationalists to Communists – had gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square to demonstrate against Putin’s victory.
After failing to disperse after their alloted time for protesting – and in Russia, rules are rules – police used heavy handed tactics to arrest about 250 people, including the informal leader of the movement, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny.
The demonstration had started peacefully, with a crowd made up of people from all walks of life from students and businessmen to artists and pensioners.
It was an icy cold day, with the temperature falling to minus 11 degrees, and a biting breeze, but the crowd remained in good spirits.
With a pro-Putin demonstration taking place in nearby Manezhnaya Square, attended by more than 15,000 people, the authorities were leaving nothing to chance
Around Pushkin Square, just 15 minutes from the Kremlin, thousands of police and special forces were on hand, with more officers waiting inside trucks.
One person at the demonstration said it was the biggest security presence he had seen in the capital since 1991, when members of the then Soviet Union’s government tried to overthrow former president Mikhail Gorbachev in a coup.
Protesters were united in their opinion that the election had not been fair.
Referring to the fact that 11 out of 16 candidates have been not allowed to run by the electoral commission on various technicalities, Viktor, 69, a mathematician, said “Many candidates were not allowed to participate, that’s the main problem.”
Valery, 37, an IT engineer, said: “It was hardly a victory, it was a circus.”
‘They robbed us’
As the crowd gradually grew larger, Navalny took to the stage. To chants from the crowd of “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a thief”, Navalny said: “They robbed us.
“Starting tomorrow, we will create a universal propaganda machine that will tell the truth we’ll work harder than Channel 1 [state-owned television].”
Acknowledging that the protest movement was still mainly supported in urban areas, Navalny said convincing those in rural areas that Putin’s United Russia was the “party of crooks and thieves”, could take six months.
Further speeches followed from Mikhail Prokhorov, the losing billionaire independent candidate and Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the Left Front, who backed Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party, in the election.
When the speeches had finished, some demonstrators who were attempting to leave peacefully were forcibly pushed by police officers down into the surrounding entrances of the city’s metro system.
About 300 people refused to leave, in defiance of the deadline for the protest to finish.
Riot police, clubs in hand, encircled those who remained, dragging them away into waiting vans.
Navalny and Udaltsov were later released by the police.
‘Long live the Tsar!’
As I leave the square, in an ironic reference to Putin, a passer-by shouts: “Long live the Tsar!”
In fact, speaking to Mucovites who are not part of the opposition movement, one is struck by their urge for a strong leader, a tradition that goes back to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, through Stalin and to Putin himself.
Putin received 64 per cent of Sunday’s vote, with his closest rival, Zyuganov, who refused to accept the result of the election, taking 17 per cent.
There seems little doubt that a number of voting irregularities took place on Sunday, with monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) declaring the election was clearly skewed in favour of Putin.
A statement from the organisation said that Putin was given a clear advantage in access to the media and that voting irregularities occured at one-third of the polling stations.
However, Golos, Russia’s only independent election watchdog, announced that Putin took just over 50 per cent of the vote, the exact amount needed for a formal victory in the first round, and confirming that he was, for the majority of Russians, the most popular candidate.
This has been a bruising campaign for Putin, a situation he is not used to, and perhaps one of the reasons for his tears on Sunday as he thanked supporters. But he is not a man to change course.
None of the protesters I spoke to on Monday evening believed that Putin would truly change anything in the way he governs over the next six years
Viktor said: “I don’t think he will change, he will cover himself with additional liberal blankets, but inside he will be the same.”
Lilia, 65, an artist, said: “He can decorate, but the main policies will be the same.”
Putin the ‘Tsar’, it seems, is here to stay, and Monday’s show of force could just be a taste of what he has in store for any opposition that gets in his way.