Up to 50,000 people turned out in Moscow on Saturday for a 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 while helicopters patrolled the skies as Moscow authorities deployed more than 50,000 riot police and troops on the biggest day of protest 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, assigned by the authorities for the “For Fair Elections” protest.
“The current regime does not know how to behave with dignity,” former cabinet member turned Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov said as the crowd gathered for the biggest Moscow opposition rally of the Putin era.
“All they know is cynicism,” Nemtsov said in reference to the December 4 poll that handed Putin’s United Russia party a slim victory amid widespread reports of fraud and strong concern from both the European Union and Washington.
“Putin and (President Dmitry) Medvedev made a shocking discovery today,” opposition veteran Sergei Mitrokhin of the liberal Yabloko party told a crowd that the opposition estimated at 50,000 or even more.
“Russia has people,” said Mitrokhin as the mainly young protesters roared back: “We are the people.”
Early police estimates put the Moscow turnout at 25,000 about one hour into the event. Another 10,000 had been counted by officials at a rally in Putin’s native city of Saint Petersburg.
“I want a recount and I want those who falsified the elections punished,” said a 29-year-old Moscow journalist who identified herself as Olga.
“Right now there is actually a chance of us changing something in this country,” added 44-year-old Anna Bekhmentova.
“No one I know voted for United Russia,” she said.
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 (five degrees Fahrenheit) chills.
Hundreds called on the authorities to “annul the election results” in the Pacific port of Vladivostok while rallies under the slogan of “Russia without Putin” spread across the Ural and Volga regions.
And organisers reported 5,000 showing up in the struggling industrial city of Chelyabinsk and up to 4,000 in nearby Yekaterinburg, both in the Urals mountains.
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.