MOSCOW: More than 50,000 people turned out in Moscow and thousands in other cities on Saturday to protest against disputed polls that have sparked a rare national show of defiance against Vladimir Putin’s 12-year rule.
Hundreds of security trucks blocked off central squares in the capital while helicopters patrolled the skies as authorities deployed more than 50,000 riot police and troops for the biggest rallies to hit Russia since the turbulent 1990s. Protesters braved a whipping snow storm to snake their way through tight police cordons and across the Moscow River to a secluded square not far from the Kremlin that authorities picked for the “For Fair Elections” protest.
“Right now there is actually a chance for us to change something in this country,” said 44-year-old Anna Bekhmentova as the predominantly young crowd chanted “Russia without Putin” and “no to a police state.”
“No one I know voted for United Russia,” said Bekhmentova while others held up banners deriding Putin’s ruling party as a gang of “swindlers and thieves.”
The flag-waving crowd spread across scenic Moscow bridges and filled the embankment and side streets in a mass show of displeasure with the December 4 poll that handed Putin’s party a slim victory amid widespread reports of fraud.
“People who have connection to the authorities feel like they can do anything,” said 26-year old lawyer Yelizaveta Derenkovskaya in summing up the disgruntled mood of many who showed up. “I came to support people who want to change this system.”
Police numbers put the turnout for Moscow at 25,000 and 10,000 for Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg where both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev were raised.
But organisers and anti-Kremlin lawmakers put the Moscow figure at 50,000 to 80,000 — with some saying more than 100,000 had shown up in a display of people’s power never before seen in the Putin era. “I want a recount and I want those who falsified the elections punished,” said 29-year-old Moscow journalist Olga in summing up the hostile mood of many in the crowd.
“This is probably the last chance we get of changing anything,” added Ilya Sarmabarov, 23, as he held up signs with others on Saint Petersburg’s Pionerskaya Ploshad square. The rolling rallies kicked off in Far Eastern hubs such as Khabarovsk where more than 50 people were detained during an unsanctioned rally attended by some 400 people in minus 15 degree Celsius chills.
Organisers also reported 5,000 showing up in the struggling industrial town of Chelyabinsk and up to 4,000 in nearby Urals Mountains city of Yekaterinburg while similar rallies were also reported in Western Siberia and the south.
Moscow protesters — organised primarily through social network sites — had permission for 30,000 people to hold a rally on Bolotnaya Square across the river from the Kremlin, which had seen some 1,600 activists during the week.
Hundreds of interior ministry trucks and buses sat parked across the centre of the capital while helicopters patrolled the skies and the police blocked the entrance to Red Square with trucks.
The demonstrations were the biggest to hit Moscow in more than a decade and rang what some saw as the first warning bell for ex-foreign agent Putin and his secretive inner circle of security chiefs.
Putin’s party — bruised by corruption allegations and comparisons to the Soviet-era Communist Party — lost its tight grip on parliament while keeping a slim majority that its foes claim was exaggerated by a corrupt vote count.
Their complaints were supported by a flood of video footage shot by ordinary Russians and posted on the Internet appearing to show ballot stuffing and other widespread manipulation.
The poll was seen as a litmus test of Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin in the March presidential ballot and appeared to expose a chink in his armour after more than a decade of dominant rule.
Putin accepted the vote’s outcome and stayed silent about the protests for three days before accusing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of inciting the unrest by questioning the elections.
The 59-year-old has been Russia’s most popular and powerful politician as president until 2008 and premier today — an image he cultivated with tough talk against foreign powers and warm words for the Soviet past.
But analysts say rapid social changes and the Internet’s first significant gains in Russia may have caught Kremlin strategists off guard amid signs that Putin’s likely return to head of state is less welcome than originally thought.
A running public opinion poll conducted by the independent Levada Centre show Putin’s ratings taking a dive immediately after his planned return to the Kremlin was announced on September 24.