Russia's opposition activists face a symbolic and strategic test on Saturday with a planned protest rally in downtown Moscow that could show whether their movement is able to maintain its strength after Vladimir Putin won a return to the Kremlin.
City authorities have given permission for a rally of up to 50,000 on Novy Arbat, a vast avenue lined by soaring 1960s skyscrapers. Against that backdrop, even a huge crowd could look diminished _ and size is a critical issue for the opposition.
"If we achieve a growth in the protests, if 100,000 people come out, it means we can quickly get results. If there won't be that number, it means that there will be longer-lasting work," Sergei Udaltsov, one of the leaders of the recent wave of protests, was quoted as saying Friday by the RIA Novosti news agency.
The unprecedented wave of huge protests that began in December was driven largely by the cause of denying Putin a victory in last Sunday's presidential election. But Putin won handily, depriving demonstrators of a galvanizing issue and potentially weakening their esprit de corps.
Opposition supporters are angered by reports of widespread vote fraud in the presidential election, and Udaltsov said the main slogan of Saturday's protest will be "These weren't elections. This isn't a president."
But with Putin headed to a six-year term beginning in May, it is unclear whether the opposition has any significant leverage to exert.
Since December, authorities who once denied almost all permission requests for opposition rallies or tightly limited their size have shown an unusual willingness to sanction huge gatherings in prominent locations. Saturday's protest venue is especially notable: Novy Arbat is part of the route used by high-speed motorcades that whisk top figures to and from the Kremlin.
However, officials also have shown that any attempt to rally outside authorized times and locations will be shut down quickly and harshly.
On Monday, the day after the election, Moscow police arrested some 250 people who stayed on a central-city square after the time authorized for a protest rally ran out. The same night, about 300 people were arrested in St. Petersburg at an attempted unsanctioned rally.
About 2,500 troops, police and civilian auxiliaries will be on duty at the Moscow protest, the city police department said Friday, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.