Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow yesterday for rival rallies arguing over the future of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in a trial of political strength one month ahead of presidential polls.
While protesters from the anti-Putin movement massed for their third rally in less than two months urging the Russian strongman to quit, his supporters also filled a square in western Moscow to bursting point.
Police said 138,000 turned up for the pro-Putin rally in the west of the capital and put the number of protesters at the anti-Putin event at about 36,000.
However, opposition rally organizers said they mobilized more than 120,000.
Bundled up in down jackets, fur coats and felt boots, the protesters defied freezing weather of about minus-17oC as Russia’s political temperature heated up ahead of the March 4 elections.
The rally by the anti-Putin -movement — its third since disputed Dec. 4 parliamentary polls — was seen as a crucial test of whether activists can keep their momentum to pose a real challenge to the Russian strongman.
“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.
The protesters marched onto Bolotnaya Square just on the other side of the Moscow river from the Kremlin and massed to hear speeches from activists and politicians calling on Putin to quit for the sake of the country.
“Putin wants to rule forever! One, two, three Putin leave!” opposition activist Ilya Yashin cried as the crowd roared back its approval.
The leader of the opposition Yabloko party, Grigory Yavlinsky, said: “We are different, but we are all of the same color, the colors of the Russian flag!”
Yavlinsky was controversially disqualified from the presidential elections on procedural grounds, ridding Putin of his sole liberal challenger in the race.
Implying he expected Putin to win the polls, but that he would then have to endure a hard time, Yavlinsky said: “Life does not end on March 4 or even 5. Everything is just beginning. We together are defending the country’s future. We will never retreat.”
Putin is standing for a 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, who have shown little passion for the protest movement.