Tens of thousands of Vladimir Putin’s supporters backed his bid for the presidency in rallies across Russia on Saturday, trying to outdo mass nationwide protests staged by his opponents.
At least 50,000 people attended rallies in European Russia, Siberia and the Far East supporting Putin’s candidacy for a historic third Kremlin term in March 4 polls, AFP correspondents and police reports said.
Russians are taking to the streets with increasing regularity ahead of the election as the opposition and camps seek to outdo each other with competing rallies.
Brandishing slogans like “Yes to Changes! No to Revolution!” and “Putin — We are with You for a Strong Russia!”, at least 10,000 people attended a rally in the former imperial capital of Saint Petersburg
“For me, Putin is stability. In these years I have personally lived better. I am given my pay on time. I have started to be proud of the country,” Putin supporter Anatoly Stepanov, 42, told an AFP correspondent.
Participants were warmed in temperatures of minus eight degrees Celsius by hot tea and Russian pies sold for nominal prices. “Look at those who are against Putin, they are not the people,” grumbled pensioner Anna Patrusheva, 58.
The opposition has accused authorities of using the state’s resources or even employing financial incentives to encourage people to show up for the Putin rallies.
Buses were visible on the fringes of the rally that had brought people in from outlying Saint Petersburg regions.
Opposition activitists call attention to the fact they do not bus militants to their rallies.
Pro-Putin rallies took place in almost all of Russia’s biggest cities, the main exceptions being Moscow and the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk where the Russian premier was busy attending an economic forum.
According to a police count quoted by Russian news agencies, 12,000 people turned out for the biggest rally in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk seven time zones away under the slogan “We Have Something to Protect!”.
Rallies mustering at least 10,000 people also took place in cities including Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod, and Novosibirsk in Siberia, while several thousand came for events in the Pacific port of Vladivostok and the Siberian city of Irkutsk.
The RIA Novosti news agency said police arrested the over-zealous organiser of the pro-Putin rally in the industrial town of Ivanovo outside Moscow after its turnout of 6,000 was double the figure announced to the authorities.
The demonstrations come ahead of a giant pre-election rally on February 23 in Moscow called by the Putin campaign under the slogan “We Protect the Country!” that organisers hope will muster 200,000 people.
The opposition Novaya Gazeta reported on Friday that factory workers from as far away as Krasnoyarsk would be flown into Moscow to boost numbers.
A page has already been set up on Russian social networking site VKontakte promising that participants from outside Moscow will get transport, an “attractive programme” and two hot meals a day.
The rally is to be followed by a rival action in the capital on February 26 by the opposition, which is counting on tens of thousands to turn out to form a human chain around the capital’s inner ring road.
As a prelude, the opposition is calling on Muscovite drivers this Sunday afternoon to hang the white ribbon symbol of the protest movement to their vehicles and join a car rally to the Kremlin walls.
Polls have shown Putin should easily win the presidential elections, with his four registered opponents failing to provide a significant challenge.
The latest survey by the state-run VTsIOM agency predicted Putin would win in the first round with almost 55 percent of the vote with his nearest rival, Communist Gennady Zyuganov, on just over nine percent.
But analysts say the protest movement could give Putin a rough ride going forward as he embarks on a new six-year Kremlin term amid growing expectations of change.