Thousands marched through Moscow yesterday to protest against the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a test of the opposition’s challenge to Putin four months after his inauguration.
Waving nationalist flags, brandishing placards calling for early elections or wearing T-shirts in support of jailed rock band Pussy Riot, the diverse groups of protesters began marching with the chant “1-2-3, Putin go!”
The protest was dubbed the “March of Millions” by organizers, who hope to mobilize 50,000 people to show they still have the momentum created by the first demonstrations in December last year against fraud-tainted elections and Putin’s holding the reins of power for more than a decade.
Police said that 5,000 people had already joined the protest, but organizer and far-left leader Sergei Udaltsov said that at least 15,000 were involved in the early stages.
Split between liberals, nationalists and the extreme left, the anti-Putin opposition has been struggling with its own divisions and accusations it lacks any coherent message beyond hostility to the Kremlin.
“Left-wing organizations on the left side of the boulevard,”” police shouted through loudspeakers as the march got under way with the different political movements marching in separate files.
This protest, culminating in a rally and speeches in the afternoon, has a bigger focus on social injustice than previous actions and for the first time the Russian Communist Party — the biggest opposition party in parliament — is represented.
The march has been given extra impetus by the expulsion from parliament of anti-Putin Russian State Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov over alleged conflicting business interests, in what the lawmaker’s supporters said was crude revenge for opposing Putin.
It is also the first mass action since the sentencing of three members of punk band Pussy Riot to two years in prison for an anti-Putin protest in an Orthodox cathedral, which has become a rallying cause for many in the opposition.
“The authorities are afraid of the people so they are experimenting with pressure. I think the people are not afraid,” former Russian prime minister turned Kremlin foe Mikhail Kasyanov said, adding that they had taken to the streets to call for “an end to repression.”
Udaltsov said: “Jailing [Pussy Riot] for two years is savagery, it is political repression.”
Police, who have warned of possible “provocations” at the rally, have said 7,000 members of the security forces are being deployed to ensure order.
There was also a more light-hearted touch, with some mocking Putin’s recent “birdman” stunt, where he flew a hang-glider to guide rare cranes on their winter migration.
One protester dressed up in a white suit and a helmet of the kind worn by Putin with the slogan “I teach cranes to fly” written on his back.
The head of Russia’s consumer and health protection agency Gennady Onishchenko sought to deter people from taking part, warning the protesters of the risks of catching colds and flu.
“Look around you and check you are near no one who is coughing and sneezing,” he told would-be marchers.
Billionaire tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, who came third in the March 4 presidential elections and took part in some previous protests, said he would not be joining the march because the opposition had no coherent program, radio station Moscow Echo said.