Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of cities across Russia yesterday to demand an end to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s rule and complain about alleged election fraud in the biggest show of defiance since he took power more than a decade ago.
Rallies were expected in dozens of cities, from Vladivostok on the Pacific coast to Kaliningrad nearly 7,400km away in the west, mounting the biggest opposition protests since Putin came to power in 2000.
In Vladivostok, a large port city where Putin’s United Russia party was defeated by communists in last Sunday’s parliamentary election, protesters held banners saying: “We are against mass falsifications,” and “The rats should go.”
Organizers said about 1,000 people defied wintry weather to protest, but police put the number much lower. About 20 were detained in Khabarovsk, a city of almost 580,000 people about 30km from the border with China, RIA news agency said.
At least 15,000 people protested in Bolotnya Square, a large open space across the Moscow River from the Kremlin, and up to 1,500 gathered near a statue to Communist ideologist Karl Marx in Revolution Square, a few steps from the Kremlin, witnesses said.
The rallies are a test of the opposition’s ability to turn outrage over the election, which it says was slanted in United Russia’s favor, into a national protest movement that could undermine Putin’s plan to return to the presidency next year.
“This is history in the making for Russia. The people are coming out to demand justice for the first time in two decades, justice in the elections,” a 41-year-old employee in the financial services sector, who gave his name only as Anton, said in Revolution Square.
Like other protesters, he wore a white ribbon which he said symbolized the dissent of the people.
Around Bolotnaya Square policemen stood every 50m with dogs. Banners declared: “Putin Kaput” and “Big brother is watching you,” with a picture of Putin.
About 50 trucks of riot police were parked near Revolution Square and police were out in force in the capital. There were no immediate reports of clashes or detentions.
There were also reports of protests in other big cities including Arkhangelsk in the Arctic north and in the Siberian cities of Barnaul, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk.
The protesters were angered by the parliamentary election in which Putin’s United Russia party won only a slim majority in the State Duma lower house, widely seen as a growing sign of discontent with Putin’s rule.
Protesters, who this week staged the biggest opposition rally in Moscow for years, said only widespread falsifications prevented the result for United Russia being much worse.
The ruling party’s leaders have denied cheating and Putin, who served eight years as Russian president from 2000 to 2008, has accused the US of encouraging and financing the protesters.
Putin and Medvedev have both said that Russians have a right to protest, but only within the bounds of permission granted by local authorities who normally allow demonstrations only at specific locations and limit turnout.
Putin, 59, remains Russia’s most popular leader in opinion polls, but his ratings have been falling.
Many Russians felt disenfranchised when he and Medvedev announced plans to swap jobs after next year’s presidential election and said they had taken the decision years ago.