The protests on the Bolotnaya Square not far from the Kremlin have without doubt been the biggest demonstrations that the Russian capital has seen since Vladimir Putin rose to power back in 2000.
The sheer number of people who took to the streets represents a new dimension in Russia's political history - regardless of whether there were 25,000 people, as the authorities claim, or more than double that figure, as the protest's organizers say. After all, protests in Russia in recent years have barely managed to mobilize more than a few hundred or thousand activists. The Saturday protests on Bolotnaya will therefore go down in modern Russian history.
The massive turnout has not only been a surprise to many of the protesters themselves. The government also didn't expect protests on such a scale. Authorities had permitted a demonstration of up to 30,000 and brought in a staggering police force of 50,000 to the capital's center. It's likely that the size of the protests contributed to the fact that situation remained peaceful. Smaller demonstrations in the past have usually been met with a brutal response by the police. But given the size of the Saturday's protests, an aggressive crackdown would have been disastrous.
Civil society and the internet
The massive demonstrations across the country might not represent a Russian revolution, but they clearly have significance. For the first time in more than a decade, tens of thousands went out to protest for their rights and their political convictions. And it was not just the usual opposition activists who showed up for the protests, but also a group that could come to be known as the new Russian civil society.
Secondly, the protests show that the Internet is an effective means to mobilize that civil society. Unlike Russian television, the Internet is a relatively free space for information which is not controlled by the Kremlin. And precisely because the protests are widely covered on the Internet, even the pro-Kremlin TV stations cannot afford to entirely ignore the demonstrations unless they want to loose what little credibility they have left. Once again, the Internet proves that it can be an instrument in the struggle for freedom and democracy.
Thirdly, the demonstrations across Russia show that the Kremlin has run out ways to deal with the discontent. The uncoordinated and contradictory information policy of the Kremlin in recent days suggests that the authorities were not prepared for what happened after last weekend's parliamentary elections. Luckily, the Kremlin did not resort to its usual use of brutal force against the protesters on Bolotnaya Square - and maybe there's a glimpse of hope for the future in that.
It remains to be seen what consequences the protests will have. There is no indication that the Kremlin seriously considers holding new elections. As significant as the demonstrations were, it is not a mass movement that really could pose a danger to those in power.
So far, there seems to be no friction or tension in the country's leadership. And the opposition is internally divided over its policy and future strategy. But Russia is at a crossroads: Saturday's protests may have given a first taste of what's to come in the next months. There's a lot that could happen between now, the presidential elections on March 4 and the likely swearing in of Putin as the country's new president in May 2012.
Author: Ingo Mannteufel, head of DW's Russia desk / ai
Editor: Matt Zuvela