Battle for Russia continues, Putin tells supporters

Fri, Feb 24, 2012, 00:00

PRIME MINISTER Vladimir Putin’s address to a full house at Moscow’s 78,000-seater Luzhniki stadium yesterday was perfectly tailored for the occasion.

What was Red Army Day is now a public holiday in honour of the “Defenders of the Fatherland” and Mr Putin warmed to the theme by reminding his supporters of the victory over Napoleon’s Great Army and telling them that “the battle for Russia continues” and that Russia, a nation with victory in its genes, would win through.

Earlier he had laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier before making his way to what was undoubtedly the largest pro-Putin rally in the series of massive public demonstrations that have taken place in Moscow since the disputed parliamentary elections in December in which Mr Putin’s United Russia party registered a massive fall in popular support.

Mr Putin has consistently alleged that his opponents, who have taken to the streets, are being used by and funded from the United States in an attempt to weaken Russia, and he continued in that vein at Luzhniki.

Russia, he said, would not allow any country to interfere in its affairs. It would not allow forces from outside to impose their will on the Russian people.

The occasion was marked by references of historical significance in a year that marks the 200th anniversary of imperial Russia’s victory over Napoleon. Mr Putin quoted from Mikhail Lermontov’s poem Borodino, he spoke of the country’s heroism in the past and asked his audience to express their love for Russia.

The audience, many of whom were decked out in the colours of the national flag, responded with a resounding Da! (Yes). Police put the attendance at 130,000 a figure challenged by opposition sources, but there was no questioning that all the stadium’s seats were taken and that there were many people standing as well.

What was open to question, however, was the motives of those who attended and the support they received to get to the rally.

The independent Ekho Moskvy radio station, which Mr Putin has accused of “pouring diarrhoea” over him in the past, spoke to students who said they had been instructed to attend by their teachers. One youngster spoke of registering attendance with a teacher and then “escaping” before the demonstration started.

There were similar allegations from people employed by the state. There was little doubt also many had come into Moscow from the regions to attend the rally. Hundreds of buses were parked in the vicinity of the stadium, some from as far as Ingushetia in the Caucasus and the Buddhist region of Kalmykia both of them several days’ drive from the capital.

As the rally ended and people streamed out of the stadium in light snow that was turning to rain, it became obvious that large numbers were not from Moscow. This correspondent was stopped on a number of occasions and asked for directions to the nearest metro station.

Almost all of them refused to comment on the rally, one of them saying: “We don’t talk to the foreign press. We are Russians.” Mr Putin is virtually certain to win Russia’s presidency when voting takes place on March 4th, with the latest polls from the usually reliable Levada Centre showing a satisfaction rating of 60 per cent.

Two of his four opponents also held rallies in Moscow yesterday but their numbers were tiny compared to those at Luzhniki. Police sources said 3,500 attended a meeting held by madcap right-winger Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the self-styled Liberal Democratic Party.

They estimated that 2,000 attended a meeting outside the Bolshoi Theatre in support of the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, but by the time I arrived there from Luzhniki there were fewer than 1,000 there.

Some were prepared to speak to me and one pensioner, Yevgeny Leonidovich Pavlenko, spoke of his hopes the country would return to its communist past. Would Zyuganov beat Putin on March 4th? “I have some hope,” he said, “but I’m afraid too many of our people have become brainwashed.”