Pro-Putin rallies take place amid claims critical media being targeted


TENS OF thousands of Russians have rallied in support of Vladimir Putin’s bid to return to the Kremlin next month, amid opposition claims that his allies are trying to subdue critical media coverage of the prime minister.

Last night, hundreds of opposition supporters drove in a convoy through Moscow to demand fair elections and that Mr Putin abandon his bid to become president in the March 4th election, four years after he moved to the premier’s post following eight years as head of state.

The demonstrations were the latest display of divisions in Russian society that were revealed by December’s parliamentary ballot, in which the ruling party’s winning majority was sharply reduced and prompted major protests against alleged vote-rigging by Mr Putin’s supporters.

Events across on Russia on Saturday attracted at least 50,000 people, who carried portraits of Mr Putin and waved banners emblazoned with slogans such as “We support a strong Russia with Putin” and “Be with the nation – vote for Putin”.

On stages from Vladivostok to St Petersburg, supporters of Mr Putin depicted him as the only man who could maintain stability in Russia and face down threats from foreign powers and domestic opponents allegedly funded by the US.

On Saturday night, hundreds of people drove through Moscow in cars covered with Russian flags and signs saying “Putin is in the driver’s seat” and “With Putin at the wheel, everything will go smoothly”. Organisers of the convoy took the idea from an earlier anti-Putin car rally through Moscow, which critics of the premier repeated yesterday.

Their vehicles were decorated with white ribbons, balloons and slogans, including “Putin – it’s time to leave”, “No to a third term” and “We want fair elections”. Along stretches of the route, people standing on the pavement unfurled white flags and cheered in support.

While police claimed that only 150 people joined the opposition event. Organisers said about 2,000 cars took part, and they complained that streets near the Kremlin had been suddenly closed or blocked by roadworks.

Reuters reported that council workers blocked a major junction outside its office with snow and removed it during the protest.

Opposition leaders said officials loyal to Mr Putin had bussed people into cities to take part in the protests, and that state workers and students had been ordered to attend.

Footage on opposition websites showed several people at a pro-Putin event in St Petersburg admitting they had been told to attend and given placards and flags to wave.

Some did not even understand the meaning of the banners they were carrying.

Russian cable and internet channel Dozhd was holding a “tele-marathon” yesterday entitled Freedom of Choice, after prosecutors started investigating it for allegedly helping to organise opposition protests.

A pro-Putin deputy led calls for the investigation, which was launched a day after Russia’s leading talk radio station said its independent editorial policy was threatened by management changes demanded by its state-controlled owner.