Thousands of opposition supporters rallied in Moscow on Saturday after mass police detentions at recent protests that have been among the largest since President Vladimir Putin\’s return to the Kremlin in 2012.
On a rainy afternoon, protesters huddled under umbrellas on the central Prospekt Andreya Sakharova street, where city authorities had given permission for the rally to take place.
The White Counter, an NGO that tracks participants in rallies, counted 7,200 people, while the massive police presence included officers in riot gear.
In recent weeks, thousands have attended street protests calling for free and fair elections after the exclusion of several opposition figures, including allies of top Putin critic Alexei Navalny, from local Moscow polls next month.
Riot police and the national guard detained more than 2,000 at the previous two rallies, which were not authorised by city officials.
On Saturday, some protesters carried placards with slogans such as "Give us the right to vote!" and "You\’ve lied to us enough" while others held up pictures of activists arrested at earlier demonstrations.
Most opposition candidates who have been banned from participating in the vote have been jailed for violating protest laws.
A dozen protesters including university students face criminal charges of "mass disorder" that risk lengthy prison terms, despite their supporters insisting protests were peaceful.
Saturday\’s rally was authorised, meaning participants should not face detention. But Navalny, who is currently in jail, urged supporters to walk peacefully through the city afterwards, when they will risk detention for illegal protests.
"After the demonstration we\’re going for a walk round Moscow," his team wrote on social media on Saturday.
Moscow police and the powerful Investigative Committee issued a warning against participating in unsanctioned protests which it said would be "immediately halted."
"They need blood," pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote of the opposition Saturday, quoting several celebrities warning against taking part in unauthorised protests.
Showing the movement\’s appeal to young Russians, popular electronic and rap musicians were set to play at the rally and mainstream celebrities attended.
One of Russia\’s most famous rappers, Oxxxymiron, posed at the rally wearing a T-shirt with a photo of one of jailed students, Yegor Zhukov.
– \’Attempt to gag us\’ –
The latest demonstration came as the authorities this week mounted their harshest attack yet on Navalny\’s team, focusing on his anti-corruption foundation which publishes investigations of officials close to Putin.
On Thursday investigators raided the foundation\’s office as part of a probe into alleged acceptance of donations of laundered money and a court froze the foundation\’s accounts.
"This is the most aggressive attempt yet to gag us," Navalny wrote in a blog entry he issued through lawyers while serving a 30-day sentence.
One of the foundation\’s lawyers, Lyubov Sobol, has been on hunger strike for weeks after being refused as a candidate in Moscow.
"These are all acts of political intimidation, political repression," she told journalists on Friday, condemning the criminal cases launched against activists as "fabricated and politically motivated".
As he enters his third decade in power, Putin\’s approval ratings have dropped significantly in recent months and critics say the authorities fear any outlet calling for wider political change.
"The repressive scenario that the authorities are relying on can probably dampen down open discontent but is hardly likely to reach the root of the problem," Vedomosti daily wrote in an editorial.
"A large section of society is not represented in power."