- - Sunday, September 16, 2012

MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of protesters streamed into downtown Moscow on Saturday for a rally that showed the resilience of their anti-Putin movement but failed to provide any clear indication of a long-term plan to dislodge their archnemesis from the Kremlin.

“We cannot live without freedom,” opposition leader Alexei Navalny proclaimed at the rally. “No one else will free us but ourselves. Hope and stubbornness will bring us victory.”

Protesters chanting “We are the power” and “Putin is a thief” earlier marched nearly two miles through the center of the Russian capital as a police helicopter hovered and security forces watched.

Estimates of crowd size varied from a police figure of 14,000 to more than 100,000 from organizers. Police traditionally have vastly underestimated numbers at anti-Kremlin rallies.

Left Front movement leader Sergei Udaltsov was detained briefly at the end of the rally after urging protesters to organize another “Maidan,” a reference to the Kiev square occupation by Ukrainian demonstrators during the 2004 uprising in the former Soviet republic. Three other people were taken into custody with Mr. Udaltsov, police said.

But the rally was largely peaceful, with none of the violence that marked a protest in central Moscow on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s May 7 inauguration for a third presidential term.

“Today’s rally confirmed the status quo,” Mr. Udaltsov said after he was released. “The protests are not declining, but the authorities continue to ignore us. It’s a deadlock.”

Unprecedented protests against Mr. Putin’s rule broke out in Moscow in December after disputed parliamentary elections, but the opposition remains an uneasy alliance of democrats, nationalists and leftist forces. The leaders of the country’s oldest liberal party, Yabloko, stayed away from Saturday’s march in protest over the involvement of leftist and right-wing movements.

Although left- and right-wing forces were well-represented at the protest, large numbers of demonstrators belong to no political party or movement.

“I’m here because I can’t simply sit at home while thieves plunder my country,” said Stanislav Rostov, 34, a computer consultant. “We have no choice. We have to keep coming out onto the streets.”

Other protesters mocked a publicity stunt in which Mr. Putin flew a motorized hang glider to encourage a flock of bred-in-captivity Siberian white cranes to fly south for the winter. “We are not your cranes,” one placard read.

The protest was held despite what opposition figures say is a systematic crackdown on dissent.

The government has increased fines from $3 to $300 for taking part in illegal protests. It raised the penalty for injuring people or causing property damage at any rally from about $600 to $9,000. The average Russian makes about $9,000 a year.

Mr. Navalny, the opposition’s de facto leader, also faces 10 years in prison on large-scale embezzlement charges that he has called absurd. The case, dating from 2009, already has been investigated twice without charges being filed.

Last month, three women from an anti-Putin punk-rock group received two-year sentences for a protest in Moscow’s largest cathedral. Another opposition activist, Taisia Osipova, was sentenced last month to eight years in prison on drug charges that she said were revenge for her refusal to testify against her husband, Sergei Fomchenkov, a leader of the radical Other Russia movement.

“While they are in a cage, we are all in a cage,” Mr. Navalny said as the crowd called for freedom for “political prisoners.”

Mr. Putin has denied that a “clampdown” is under way.

“If we understand this term as a simple requirement that everyone, including the opposition, complies with Russian law, then this requirement will be consistently enforced,” he said earlier this month.

The rally took place a day after the parliament expelled outspoken lawmaker Gennady Gudkov over alleged illegal business activities. Mr. Gudkov is the second lawmaker ever to be ousted from the lower house without a court decision and now could face prison time after losing his parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Mr. Gudkov, a former KGB officer like Mr. Putin, said last week that his expulsion was “political payback” for his involvement in the protest movement. Ahead of his ouster, he warned lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party that he would return to parliament to “help build a new country.”

“We have no constitution, no law and no parliament worthy of the name,” Mr. Gudkov said Saturday after he was introduced on the rally stage as “one of Russia’s future leaders.”

“The authorities must compromise or we will overthrow them,” he said to loud applause. “But we must be united.”

Although Mr. Putin’s approval ratings are falling, his figures remain high by Western standards, and anti-Kremlin rallies held in other cities across Russia on Saturday failed to draw significant numbers.

Mr. Putin, who turns 60 next month, has shown little sign that he is willing to negotiate with protesters, whom he described last year as Western-backed, chattering monkeys.

With no nationwide elections due until 2016, protest leaders have turned their attention to regional polls, and the immediate focus is on high-profile ecological activist Yevgenia Chirikova’s bid to become mayor of the Moscow satellite city Khimki.

“Elections are an excellent chance to work with people,” Ms. Chirikova said Saturday. “We need to make people understand that they can change things, that they can make a difference.”

Ilya Yashin, leader of the Solidarity movement, said at the rally that the opposition needs to demonstrate “discipline and organization” if it is to succeed.

“People need to see the results of our work,” he said.