“Strollers” walk on the Moscow’s boulevard ring.

© 2012 Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch

(Moscow) – Police arrested hundreds of people following clashes with demonstrators at a major protest rally in Moscow on May 6, 2012, the day before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as president of Russia. All told, between May 6 and 8, law enforcement officials detained over 1,000 people on charges of resisting police orders or violating the law on holding public events. Many were taken into custody simply for wearing white ribbons, the symbol of the protest movement. Police even raided some cafes favored by protesters, overturning tables and chairs and detaining patrons. Several writers and journalists were detained.

Outraged by the brutal “mop-up operation” in the heart of Russia’s capital, 12 prominent poets and writers invited their readers to join them for a Sunday “test stroll” along Moscow’s boulevards. They wanted to find out whether a large crowd of Muscovites could walk through the center of their own city “without being blocked, beaten, poisoned with gas, detained, arrested or at least subjected to stupid molestation with questions.”

On May 13, they started at noon from Pushkin Square and walked to Chistye Prudy, a park in central Moscow, where a group of protesters had organized a makeshift encampment modeled on Occupy Wall Street. The authors did not negotiate the “stroll” with the city authorities since, technically, this ingenuous alternative to a protest rally required no official sanction.

The authors’ stroll attracted nearly 10,000 people and stopped traffic along the boulevards. Based on the initial agreement with the organizers, the “strollers” refrained from chanting slogans or raising banners. But some wore white ribbons and clapped and cheered, asserting their freedom and their ultimate ownership of the city. The police did not interfere, and the crowd dispersed after reaching the encampment at Chistye Prudy.

Despite the triumph of peaceful protesters on May 13, the situation for the protest movement remains precarious. On May 15, a Moscow court ruled that the protesters’ camp at Chistye Prudy should be dismantled. The court was allegedly responding to complaints from local residents about noise and damage to grass and trees.

Several opposition leaders remain under administrative arrest and are likely to face criminal charges for their role in the May 6 clashes. A draft law to increase fines for creating civil unrest at demonstrations to 1.5 million rubles [approximately US$50,000] is now under review by the State Duma.