Tens of thousands took to the streets of Moscow Saturday for rival rallies opposing and supporting Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s political domination one month ahead of presidential polls.
Police said between 87,000 and 90,000 turned up for the pro-Putin rally in the west of the capital and put the number of protesters at the anti-Putin march to a square overlooking the Kremlin at around 23,000.
The rally by the anti-Putin movement — its third since disputed December 4 parliamentary polls — is seen as a crucial test of whether activists can keep their momentum to pose a real challenge to the Russian strongman.
Thousands bundled up in down jackets, fur coats and felt boots marched through Moscow to urge Putin to quit power ahead of March 4 polls in which Putin is planning to reclaim his old Kremlin job.
“We are not afraid of the frost. We are afraid of lies,” said Mikhail Matrosov, a 51-year-old businessman who came to the rally with his friends. “We are for fair elections,” he said.
“Here have gathered people of absolutely different political views — left, right, nationalists, everyone,” anti-Kremlin corruption crusader and prominent activist Alexei Navalny said before the march.
Opposition activists, many sporting white ribbons — a symbol of the protest movement Putin has likened to condoms — carried banners reading “We will keep coming until they go” and “Mubarak, then Kadhafi, then Putin.”
The rival marches come after the country’s ten-day New Year holidays and in a harsh cold spell, with temperatures in Moscow expected to hover around minus 17 degrees Celsius (1.5 Fahrenheit).
The government supporters were staging a rival rally dubbed the “anti-Orange protest” — a reference to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution that ousted its old order from power and infuriated the Kremlin.
The organisers of the pro-Putin event at Poklonnaya Gora War Memorial Park are hoping their rally will trump the opposition protest and show that Putin retains genuine popular support.
Putin, who has refused to bow to opposition demands, has thanked his supporters, telling them to dress warmly. “I am grateful to them and share their views,” he said late Friday.
Putin admitted that Russians may at times be pressured to join pro-government rallies but said reports of pressure should not be exaggerated.
Complaints have multiplied in recent days that employees of state companies are being offered cash incentives or even being ordered to attend the pro-Putin rally.
Opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that even parliament members and their aides were forced to join the pro-Putin rally.
It quoted an aide to a senator, who spoke anonymously, as saying “those above have lost their (expletive) mind”.
A nurse from a hospital in the Moscow suburb of Zelenograd told AFP this week that staff at her hospital were offered 3,000 rubles ($100) to attend the pro-Putin rally and 15 people have agreed to go.
Smaller anti-Putin and pro-Putin rallies are planned outside Moscow, with the biggest turnouts expected in Saint Petersburg, the Urals city of Yekaterinburg and the biggest Siberian city Novosibirsk.
“I want changes. One can’t live like that any longer,” Mukhtar Akhmadullin told AFP at an opposition rally in Yekaterinburg.
“I came here to support the protest to help people wake up so that they can stand up for their rights,” he said at the rally whose turnout organisers estimated at around 8,000.
Putin is standing for a historic third term as Kremlin chief in the elections after his four year stint as prime minister and his main opposition will come from the Communists, with the main liberal candidate disqualified.