MOSCOW -- Russian opposition leaders rallied thousands of people in Moscow to demand free and fair elections as a decision by officials to ban some independent candidates in local elections has seemingly sparked new life into the political protest movement.
More than 20,000 people attended the rally in central Moscow on July 20 to demand opposition candidates be allowed to participate in the September city council elections, according to White Counter, an NGO that tracks participation in protest movements. The police estimated 12,000 attended.
“I have not been to such a huge rally since 2012. I am very happy that tens of thousands of Muscovites didn’t keep silent, didn’t swallow humiliation, but came out to protest,” opposition figure Aleksei Navalny said in a statement on Twitter.
Navalny helped lead a series of protests in Moscow in late 2011 and 2012 following national parliamentary elections that many called rigged.
The protests were the largest since Russian President Vladimir Putin took power in 1999 and led to a crackdown on civil society that largely silenced citizens over the next several years.
The July 20 protest is the latest sign that Russian citizens are willing to take to the streets to express their discontent over a host of issues, ranging from elections to low living standards and local problems like garbage.
Medical professionals took to the streets earlier this year to protest low wages. Residents in the northern province of Arkhangelsk are fighting government plans to build a landfill while protesters in the the Urals town of Yekaterinburg succeeded in stopping city plans to build a church on a popular square.
Though Putin still remains very popular, trust in his leadership has fallen to more than a decade low, according to a state-funded pollster, following an increase in taxation and the pension age.
The 66-year-old Putin was directly targeted by some protest participants, with placards reading “Putin Lies” and "Stop Lying To Us."
Opposition candidate Ilya Yashin, 36, told the crowd that "I've lived half my life under Putin. I've had enough."
Navalny warned that another rally would be held on July 27 unless city authorities register the opposition candidates.
“We will show [the authorities] this is a dangerous game," Navalny told the crowd. "We should fight for our candidates."
Several protests had been held in Moscow earlier in the week after the election committee announced the exclusion of several popular opposition candidates from the September elections to the city council.
On July 15, dozens of independent candidates and their supporters rallied on the Trubnaya Square, demanding that the commission register their candidacies after a promised meeting with the commission chief, Valentin Gorbunov, was canceled.
On July 14, Moscow police detained more than 25 demonstrators outside the Moscow Election Commission headquarters after opposition candidates called for a sit-in protest.
Candidates seeking to run for Moscow city council seats in September had to submit 4,500 verifiable signatures of support by July 6 to the election commission.
The election commission rejected the opposition candidates on the grounds that they submitted too many signatures with invalid names, addresses, or passport details as well as false signatures.
The opposition candidates said the signatures didn't match because the election committee has incorrect personal information in their database.
Election to the Moscow City Council would give opposition candidates a say over the city’s $43 billion annual budget -- the largest in Russia -- as well as political legitimacy.
It would also demonstrate the weakness of the ruling United Russia party and potentially spark activists in other regions to seek seats.