Russia yesterday came to terms with its second mass opposition rally within a month which was even bigger and more sharply critical of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin than the first such protest two weeks ago.
Organizers said 120,000 people attended the extraordinary rally in central Moscow on Saturday where protesters chanted slogans against Putin and called for the annulment of this month’s disputed elections won by his party.
Police put the numbers at 29,000, but foreign correspondents said the turnout was clearly bigger than the first rally two weeks ago which smashed the taboo in Russia against mass opposition protests.
The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also dramatically called on Putin to quit, just as he had done on Dec. 25, 1991 when the USSR collapsed exactly two decades ago.
“This is not an outburst which will die down. This is not about the protests, but about the mood,” said Yevgeny Gontmakher, head of the Center for Social Policies at the Moscow-based Economics Institute. “There is a danger of a revolution. Authorities are making concessions, but are not keeping up with the development of the events.”
Russia’s state television took the surprise decision to cover the rally hinting at an easing of a long-held taboo against direct criticism of Putin, who came to power 12 years ago and wants to stay at the helm until 2024.
“Sharply negative appraisals of Vladimir Putin have been voiced several times,” a report about the rally broadcast on the Channel One said on Saturday night.
With opposition supporters stepping up their challenge to Putin in a campaign first triggered by claims of fraud in Dec. 4 parliamentary polls, a growing public anger against Putin has become impossible to ignore.
“Channel One honestly speaks of the anti-Putin nature of today’s meeting. That obviously cannot be pure coincidence,” said Vladimir Varfolomeyev, a commentator with liberal Echo of Moscow radio.
Putin — who announced a plan to leave his current post as prime minister to reclaim his old Kremlin job in March presidential polls — is struggling with the worst legitimacy crisis of his rule.
Mass protests were triggered by widespread claim of wholesale violations in the parliamentary polls this month which handed a reduced majority to Putin’s ruling United Russia party.
Protesters called for the annulment of the ballot, sacking of the Central Election Commission chief and a re-run of elections. Hoping to ride out a wave of protests, Putin ignored those demands and promised instead a return to direct election of governors and a simplified procedure to register political parties.
In defiance of protests, the newly elected lower house of parliament convened for its first session earlier this week.
Incensed by Putin’s claims that opposition supporters were in the pay of the US Department of State and insults comparing them to an anti-AIDS campaign, protesters are now taking their anger out directly at Putin.
Most Russians lost their taste for street politics in the chaotic 1990s and the scale of the current protests is a major boon for the fragmented opposition, which had for years struggled to encourage Russians to take to the streets.
Many had also feared that the opposition would not manage to repeat the success of the first Dec. 10 rally after the initial anger subsided and Russians would leave for warmer climes for the 10-day New Year’s break.