- - Tuesday, June 12, 2012

MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of Russians filled the streets of central Moscow on Tuesday to rally against the 12-year rule of President Vladimir Putin, braving torrential rain and the threat of vastly increased fines for protest-related offenses.

“We will win and win very soon,” protest leader Sergei Udaltsov told a cheering crowd. “This year, we will free Russia.”

At least 50,000 people held a peaceful march earlier through the capital’s downtown boulevards chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a thief” as a police helicopter hovered above them.

No arrests were reported, and policing was notably lighter than at previous demonstrations.

Police said some 15,000 people attended the protest, a figure mocked by opposition leaders and independent media.

In a televised address during a Russia Day ceremony at the Kremlin, Mr. Putin, 59, indirectly jabbed at protesters, saying that “anything that weakens the country or divides society is unacceptable.”

A national holiday, Russia Day commemorates the nation’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.

New protest law

Tuesday’s march was the first large-scale demonstration since Mr. Putin’s inauguration in May, when he returned to the Kremlin as president for a six-year term after having won an election criticized by opposition leaders and international observers. Anti-Putin protests have proliferated since December, when disputed legislative elections kept his party in power.

Under legislation that was raced through parliament, protesters now can face fines of $9,000 — about the average annual Russian salary — for violations of “the established rules of conduct” at demonstrations. Those found guilty of damage to property at protests will face even larger fines.

The Kremlin’s own human rights council has criticized the law.

Mr. Putin has said the law is necessary to “protect society from radicalism,” and dismissed claims that it is too harsh.

“I want my children to live in a normal country, and for that to happen, Putin has to go,” said protester Sergei Letov, 38. “But I want peaceful change. Russia has seen enough bloodletting down the years.”

The rally was held a day after police raided the homes of protest leaders in connection with clashes between security forces and demonstrators in Moscow on the eve of Mr. Putin’s May 7 inauguration.

Opposition figures likened the raids to the repression of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

“Some people forced their way in at 8 a.m., gave me no chance to get dressed, robbed the apartment and humiliated me,” TV celebrity turned dissident Kseniya Sobchak said in a Twitter post. “I never thought we would return to such repression in this country.”

Investigators said they had seized $1.7 million from a safe in Ms. Sobchak’s apartment and would investigate to determine whether she had paid taxes.

Ms. Sobchak is the daughter of the late mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, Mr. Putin’s political mentor.

The home of well-known blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny also was raided.

Mr. Navalny said investigators had taken a wide range of items from his apartment, including computer equipment, photos of his two children and a T-shirt mocking the ruling United Russia party.

Eye on opposition leaders

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington was “deeply concerned by the apparent harassment of Russian political opposition figures on the eve of the planned demonstrations on June 12.”

“These measures raise serious questions about the arbitrary use of law enforcement to stifle free speech and free assembly,” she said.

Protest leaders, including Mr. Udaltsov, were ordered to report to federal investigators Tuesday for questioning in connection with the violence at May’s demonstration.

Mr. Udaltsov, who is the leader of the Left Front opposition movement, ignored the summons.

Other protest leaders, including Mr. Navalny and Ms. Sobchak, presented themselves before the capital’s Investigation Committee and were unable to attend the march.

“The authorities seem to think that if the protest leaders don’t turn up, the people won’t gather,” Solidarity leader Ilya Yashin told journalists outside the Investigation Committee offices.

Ms. Sobchak, citing Kremlin sources, said last month that the authorities wanted to jail Mr. Navalny and Mr. Udaltsov on charges of inciting the clashes at the May protest against Mr. Putin.

Opposition figures have vowed to keep up the pressure on Mr. Putin, calling for mass protests in September and ahead of the former KGB officer’s 60th birthday in October.

Protesters have accused Mr. Putin, who returned to the Kremlin in May after four years as prime minister preceded by eight years as president, of corruption and implementing a crackdown on political freedoms.

The unprecedented protests against his rule erupted after December’s parliamentary elections, which the opposition said were rigged in favor of United Russia.

But many Russians remain suspicious of the protest leaders, whose politics range from Mr. Udaltsov’s far-left beliefs to the ultra-right agendas of a host of outlawed nationalist organizations.

“I am glad that they have woken people up and made them realize that they have the power to change things,” said housewife Olga Kucherenko, 29. “But I’m not entirely sure if they are suited to ruling the country.”