Protesters brave freeze to denounce Putin regime


Rival rallies in Moscow take radically diverging views of the regime: an election-stealing corrupt clique or the only force to preserve order and prosperity, writes DAN McLAUGHLINin Moscow

RUSSIAN LEADER Vladimir Putin’s increasingly bold opponents are planning more protests after tens of thousands of people braved freezing Moscow weather to denounce his ruling clique and rigged elections.

Fewer people attended a rival pro-Putin rally in a different part of the city, where speakers backed the prime minister’s bid to return to the presidency next month and claimed he was the only man who could bring stability and prosperity to a Russia threatened by scheming western powers.

Waving flags saying “Those who support Russia support Putin” and “No to revolution”, perhaps 40,000 people listened to claims from the stage that Putin’s opponents were funded by the US and wanted to repeat Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Russia.

On the other side of Moscow, a mostly liberal crowd of perhaps 75,000 – with a sprinkling of nationalists and far-left sympathisers – mocked those claims and called for free elections and Putin’s departure, saying his corrupt clique was strangling Russia’s democracy and development.

“We are not extreme, we just want free and fair elections and an open political system,” said office worker Denis, who declined to give his surname.

“Putin has had 12 years in power and wants to go on and on. It’s crazy. The country’s going nowhere but he and his people won’t let anyone else have a chance to run things. That’s why we are on the streets. And neither the United States nor anyone else is paying us.”

One protester wore a badge saying “State Department Agent” and jokingly handed out fake dollar bills bearing a picture of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, while calling on passers-by to take the “blood money”. Others wore orange hats and some even dressed as hamsters, after opposition supporters were dubbed “internet hamsters” who could not really threaten Putin.

He is expected to win a presidential election on March 4th and return to the Kremlin, four years after he moved to the prime minister’s post following an eight-year stint as head of state.

Putin enjoys the support of Russia’s political and financial elite, its hugely powerful security services and state-dominated media, but his popularity has slipped in recent months and his United Russia party won December’s election with a sharply reduced majority.

On Saturday, opposition protesters united around a call for fair elections, but the movement is far from homogeneous and is not represented by a candidate in the presidential ballot. Billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov attended the event and is running in the election, but many people are suspicious of his wealth and his apparently easy relationship with the Kremlin.

“History will not end after the presidential elections, no matter who wins. History is just beginning – beginning for us and ending for them,” said veteran liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky, who was barred from the election due to alleged forgery in his registration papers.

“Go to the elections, become observers, don’t let them rig it,” he told the crowd, which gathered on a large island in the Moscow river that is overlooked by the Kremlin.

Organisers of the anti-Putin rally claimed that 120,000 people attended, while police and those who planned the pro-Putin event said that as many as 190,000 people participated.

Both camps were guilty of exaggeration, but the opposition march clearly enjoyed the larger turnout. Furthermore, many people attending the pro-government rally had been bussed in from the provinces and some workers and students had been told to attend by their bosses or teachers.

“We don’t want a repeat of the 1990s, when everything was chaos, or of what is happening in Libya and Egypt now or happened in Ukraine. Russia should stick to its course and Putin knows that. He wants stability and order – like we do,” said teacher Lyuba Nikolskaya.

On a stage in a park that hosts memorials to Russia’s victory over Napoleon and fascist Germany, a series of speakers warned that an “orange plague” of foreign origin now threatened the country, and could return millions to the destitution that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“My aim is to support the movement against the ‘orange ones’ – those America sends us to topple those in power and rock society,” said university student Kirill Domchenko.

Putin’s allies and state television have sought to depict his critics as wealthy Muscovites who have little connection with or understanding of the rest of Russia, but people of all ages and incomes were represented at both protests on Saturday.

The success of the opposition rally – even though it was minus 15 degrees in Moscow – prompted its leaders to announce plans for two more protests, one a week before and one soon after the presidential election.