For a brief moment in January and February 2012, it looked as if the Russian government had decidedly altered its public policy against opposition protests and public demonstrations. The Russian government allowed two successful, peaceful demonstrations to occur on December 10 and December 24, 2011, and a third, much later, on February 26, 2012. Human rights organizations and activists looked hopeful and remarked on possible explanations for the policy shift. But the government’s arrest of nearly 550 people at election fraud demonstrations on March 5, 2012 has potentially dashed these hopes and brought the hopeful back to reality.

The Russian government has ratified several legal documents that protect the right of its citizens to publicly protest. Russian Constitution Article 31 states that Russian citizens “shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets.” In customary international law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 20 provides for freedom of peaceful assembly and association and Article 19 provides for freedom of opinion and expression. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Article 21 requires states to recognize the right of peaceful assembly and provides that “no restrictions . . . be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” In practice, this provision enables governments to require protesters to obtain permits prior to holding public demonstrations.

Though not required specifically by its Constitution, the Russian government requires citizens to obtain a written permit from local authorities, such as the local Mayor’s office, before protesting publicly. Applicants must indicate the location and estimated number of participants, and may be subject to a nominal fine if their estimates turn out inaccurately low. If Russian authorities meet resistance when attempting to disperse a demonstration, any resistant protesters may be detained for up to 15 days.

Prior to the March 5 arrests, some commentators theorized that the change in Russia’s response to public protests could conceivably be explained by the permit requirement. Previous protests that ended in mass arrests either did not have a permit at all, or had displayed gross inconsistencies between the number of individuals estimated to participate and those who actually attended, with the latter exceeding the former by thousands in some cases. Conversely, both December demonstrations were sanctioned by the Russian authorities after demonstrators obtained the required permits, and were carried out peacefully, with no violence occurring between police and demonstrators. The permit requirement theory may also explain the March 5 arrests, as many of those arrested had refused to leave their demonstration sites even after their protest permits had expired at 9 p.m.

While protestors’ failures to satisfy the permit requirements may explain the government’s varied responses to demonstrations, other commentators theorized that December’s peaceful protests should be attributed to something less tangible—the political considerations required by the unexpected demographic participating in those protests, which was surprisingly middle-class. Vladislav Y. Surkov, a Kremlin official who spent the last 10 years protecting Mr. Putin from potentially politically dangerous street rallies, stated that the protestors on December 10 represented “the best part of our society, or, more accurately, the most productive part.” Yevgeny S. Gontmakher, an economic advisor to the Russian government, commented on the remarkability of the protestors’ demands for political rights rather than economic relief, stating this fact “is a sign that Russia is becoming a Western country, in its own way.”

Now following the March 5 arrests, another theory must be posited: perhaps the seeming, now questionably temporary, policy shift had nothing to do with permit requirements or protest demographics. Perhaps instead it was simply and entirely political. Perhaps permitting the protests to occur peacefully was only Vladimir Putin’s bone to the people to appease them after allegedly rigged parliamentary elections in December but before his expected presidential election on March 4. If so, one might argue it was quite an effective distraction. No notable protests occurred between December 24 and February 26, and Human Rights Watch, which monitored the protests, continued to write that the protests occurred peacefully. In Russia, political protests are renowned for producing violence, but not change. A cynical mind might wonder whether Mr. Putin had masterminded how to use this history to his political advantage, all along intending a complete return to the status quo following his election success.

Whatever the explanation, the result remains the same: Vladimir Putin is Russia’s President yet again, and opposition protesters are being arrested in droves. Perhaps the next election season will provide renewed hope for the respect of the people’s right to peaceful assembly—but then again, a cynic would say, that seems rather unlikely.