By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian protestors unfurled a huge banner demanding the release of "political prisoners" on Monday, at the start of a day of protest against President Vladimir Putin intended to revive their flagging opposition movement.
The banner, declaring "Freedom for the May 6 prisoners!", rippled over three floors at the top of a high-rise apartment block on Novy Arbat, one of Moscow's busiest streets. It was quickly taken down and one man was arrested.
The gesture of defiance was a muted prelude to a planned evening rally on the Moscow square where, a year ago, baton-wielding riot police broke up a protest against Putin on the eve of his inauguration. Hundreds were detained.
Opposition activists also plastered the names of protesters awaiting trial for last year's rally across street signs in the city of Yekaterinburg, in a twist on the tradition of honoring heroes by naming streets after them.
Putin's critics saw the use of force and the threat of jail sentences as a shift towards intimidation and repression and a turning point in the Kremlin's tactics against the opposition.
"The GULAG again in Russia?" said Gennady Gudkov, a former member of parliament, drawing comparisons between Putin and the methods used by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who sent millions to their death in labor camps.
Summoning people to the protest planned on Bolotnaya Square, he said in online comments: "If you don't want such a future, come today to Bolotnaya!"
The opposition hope to win back the tens of thousands who protested against Putin early last year. But, disjointed and chaotic, the opposition has lost many of its mainly young, urban and middle-class supporters. Anger has given way to apathy.
OPPOSITION BATTLES APATHY
The liberal Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy even held a phone-in asking whether there was any point holding the protest.
An initial rally in Moscow on Sunday attracted only several hundred people and appeared to underline divisions in the opposition, as most of its leaders stayed away.
Putin, who in 13 years of power has succeeded in sidelining his opponents, has mocked the opposition.
He took aim at protest leader Alexei Navalny last month, reveling in his opponent's struggle against criminal charges for theft in a provincial court. Navalny says the charges, which carry a 10-year jail term, are politically motivated.
"Those who fight corruption must be crystal clean themselves," Putin said in his annual question-and-answer session with Russians.
As if to underline the opposition's impotence, the Justice Ministry said in an online statement that it had refused to register a political party to support Navalny, one of the protest organizers. It did not say why.
Parliament has also pushed through several laws seen by the opposition as intended to muzzle critics - including tougher laws on libel and larger fines for protesters who step out of line - but the Kremlin denies a crackdown on dissent.
Human rights and opposition activists say 28 people face charges over last year's rally. Several are in detention awaiting trial and some are under house arrest, accused of provoking violence.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Jon Boyle)