The budding movement against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s grip on power has kept its momentum a month ahead of the country’s presidential polls, after its latest rally repeated the success of previous protests despite freezing temperatures, analysts said.
Bundled up in down jackets, sheepskin coats and felt boots, protesters turned up on Saturday for their third rally since fraud-tainted elections in December last year in defiance of government calls to ignore the protest and after a long New Year’s break.
“It is important that the number of people is not going down despite the cold and the fact that this is already their third rally,” said Maria Lipman, editor at Pro et Contra journal published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“People’s convictions are only growing stronger,” she said.
Incensed by widespread claims of fraud in December parliamentary elections, tens of thousands of people gathered in Moscow on Dec. 10 and 24 in the largest protests of Putin’s 12-year rule as president and prime minister.
The organizers had worried that the protest movement was in danger of fizzling out and popular anger over claims of fraud might subside two months after the parliamentary polls.
However, they said the turnout exceeded expectations, pledging to hold a smaller-scale protest before the March 4 presidential election and another mass rally soon after it.
“There is absolutely no feeling that the protest movement is fizzling out,” said Sergei Parkhomenko, one of the organizers. “The Kremlin had hoped it would go away, but it’s not going away. It will continue after the elections.”
While police put the number of protesters at the anti-Putin rally at Bolotnaya Square called through social networks at about 36,000, the organizers said about 120,000 people turned up.
Authorities made a series of calls to discourage Russians from joining the opposition protest and staged a rival rally, busing scores of ordinary Russians to the Poklonnaya Gora War Memorial Park. Police said 138,000 were in attendance, but a reporter at the scene said the numbers appeared to have been exaggerated.
Complaints multiplied ahead of the pro-Putin rally, organized by authorities and Kremlin-friendly trade unions, that employees of state companies were offered cash incentives or even ordered to attend the protest.
A nurse from a hospital in the Moscow suburb of Zelenograd said last week that colleagues were offered 3,000 rubles (US$100) to attend the pro-Putin rally and 15 agreed to go.
Analysts said authorities, who wanted to show that Putin’s backers far outnumbered his opponents, risked alienating sincere supporters.
“This protest will come back to haunt him,” said Yuliy Nisnevich, a political science professor at the Higher School of Economics.
“People were being pressured, humiliated, and they will hold a grudge,” he said, adding that many of those who attended the pro-Putin rally might later join the opposite camp.
Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that by pulling out all the stops to stage the pro-Putin protest, authorities were sending a signal that a rally was a “way to solve political problems.”
“Authorities are rocking the boat themselves,” he said.
Observers stressed that the nascent protest movement should ramp up its efforts and mobilize greater numbers if it hopes to mount a serious challenge to Putin.