Opposition in Moscow rallies for a 'Russia without Putin'

Mon, Feb 27, 2012, 00:00

There were scuffles in the Russian capital as interest groups and police faced each other

TENS OF thousands of good-humoured anti-Putin protesters formed a ring around central Moscow yesterday wearing white ribbons, carrying white balloons and calling for “Russia without Putin” as the country prepared for this Sunday’s presidential election.

Later in the day there were scuffles on Revolution Square between supporters of the anti-Putin group Left Front, riot police, members of the pro-Putin youth group Nashi and men dressed in Cossack uniforms. The Interfax news agency reported that five people were arrested.

Putin is a strong favourite to win back Russia’s presidency, but the Moscow demonstrators showed there can be considerable opposition on the streets, if not on the ballot paper. Few of those who formed the “Great White Circle” in Moscow yesterday supported any of the four candidates who managed to get on to the ballot in opposition to Mr Putin. In my tour around the city’s 16km Garden Ring Road I saw just one poster supporting the independent candidate Mikhail Prokhorov and none for any of the other three: the communist Gennady Zyuganov, right-wing candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Sergei Mironov of the Social Democratic “A Just Russia” party.

Moscow’s Garden Ring got its name in Tsarist times when it contained rows of family dwellings with front gardens. Now it is a vast 12-lane highway ringed with high-rise buildings from the Soviet era. Some more modern excrescences have appeared since the fall of the USSR and there is just one tiny stretch where some original buildings remain. One, a little pink villa, bears a metal plate identifying it as a doctor’s surgery. It can still be clearly read that the medical practitioner was “Dr AP Chekhov”.

It was along this highway that the “opposition” gathered and it was estimated they needed 34,000 people in order to succeed in forming a “Great White Circle” around central Moscow.

From the start it was obvious these protesters were different people from those who gathered on Wednesday last to support Putin. They were in a good mood, chattered and cheered and presented a much happier picture than the sullen and silent groups that attended Prime Minister Putin’s rally at the Luzhniki stadium earlier in the week.

They were also better dressed than the pro-Putin people. Some women displayed their anti-Putin colours in the form of white fur coats, while others bore banners with the words “We’ll reject Putin on March 4th”. The cars that honked their horns and flew white streamers in support were evidently those of Russia’s new middle class. There were no Ladas to be seen but a strong presence of expensive SUVs, Mercedes models and Audis.

The crowds were thicker close to metro stations such as Mayakovskaya, where people stood three or four deep as the protests began. They thinned out elsewhere along the route and the only place where there were any significant gaps was in a stretch from the huge statue of Lenin on Oktyabrskaya Square and along the entrance to Gorky Park, where apolitical Muscovites could be seen skiing and skating in the constant snowfall.

There was a dramatic change in atmosphere at Revolution Square, facing the newly renovated Bolshoi Theatre. A group of unsavoury looking young men had gathered in one corner. They looked as through they might be spoiling for a fight.

Those coming in from the Great White Circle by metro, including this correspondent, were searched by special police officers in camouflage uniforms. Further up, a line of riot police blocked the square. Protesters who had taken to the streets and the square with their small children began to drift towards the nearby metro stations. There was a sense that things could go wrong – and they did.

Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the Left Front, led a delegation to the police and demanded the release of what he termed “political prisoners” including imprisoned billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsy. A woman was arrested for carrying a doll which she intended to set on fire. Protesters danced in a ring around the police as they questioned her.

By the time the ensuing disturbance had ended, five people had been arrested.

Episode one of Séamus Martin’s documentary Death of an Empireon the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the new Russia will be broadcast on RTÉ Radio One this evening at 8.30pm