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Anti-Putin March Draws Tens of Thousands in Moscow

RIA Novosti

19:17 04/02/2012

MOSCOW, February 4 (Marc Bennetts, RIA Novosti) - Protesters from all walks of life and of all political persuasions packed downtown Moscow on Saturday to express their opposition to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s expected return to the Kremlin next month.

“Russia without Putin!” chanted a crowd estimated at some 120,000 by organizers, but given as a little over 35,000 by police. “Not one vote for Putin!”

One of the loudest cheers of the afternoon came when Left Front movement leader Sergei Udaltsov “symbolically” tore up a portrait of Putin on stage.

The protest came exactly a month before March 4 presidential polls in which Putin, 59, is to seek a third stint in the Kremlin. He was barred by the Constitution from standing for a third consecutive term in 2008 and handed over power to his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev.

Protest organizers had expressed fears on the eve of the rally that the Arctic-like cold that has gripped Moscow for over a week would see a much lower attendance on Saturday than at the two previous mass opposition rallies in December.

Those protests came in the wake of alleged vote fraud in favor of Putin’s United Russia party at December’s parliamentary polls and were the biggest show of dissent here for almost two decades. They also signaled a dramatic revival of a grassroots politics that had previously been limited to isolated radical and fringe groups.

And on Saturday, a mass of warmly-clad demonstrators from a bewildering number of political movements, ranging from liberals to monarchists, from anarchists to nationalists, marched around a mile (1.5 km) from a Soviet-era Lenin statue to Bolotnaya Square, across the Moskva River from the Kremlin.

Rallies also took place in around 30 other Russian cities, including St. Petersburg, where organizers claimed a crowd of 20,000. Police said 5,000 had attended.

“No one could have imagined two years ago that a huge rally in central Moscow at which people shout ‘Putin is a thief!’ could take place,” said twenty-something protester Irina Danukina. “But this is just the beginning.”

Putin accused the United States in December of being behind the protests, saying U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had “given a signal” to opposition leaders.

“Things can’t go on like this. The lies, the corruption, the paranoia about the West,” said student Oleg Stepanin as a police helicopter hovered above the crowd. “We have no democracy.”

Protest organizers had promised to keep speeches to a minimum due to the punishing cold, and speakers such as veteran liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky got quickly to the point.

“Life does not end on March 4,” he said. “For us, this is just the beginning. For them, it is the end.”

Yavlinsky, head of the Yabloko party, was barred from the presidential race after election officials ruled thousand of signatures in support of his bid were faked.

Other speakers included novelist Boris Akunin and award-winning journalist Leonid Parfyonov.

Opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny, the man who instigated the current protests, attended the rally, but did not speak.

“Today proved that protestors are ready to go out on the streets regularly,” Pavel Salin, analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Political Assessments, told RIA Novosti. “The government now has to make a decision about what to do about these protests.”

No arrests were reported on Saturday amid a heavy police presence.

State-run pollster VTSIOM said on Friday that support for Putin was at 52 percent, with Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Liberal Democratic party head Vladimir Zhirinovsky tying for second with 8 percent.

A poll by the independent Levada Center reported on Thursday, however, that a mere 49 percent of Russians believed the elections would be fair.

Across the capital, Putin supporters rallied to urge an end to “the Orange Revolution” a reference to the uprisings that saw regime change in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine in Georgia almost a decade ago.

“We say no to the destruction of Russia!” TV anchor and rally organizer Sergei Kurginyan told the crowd. “Let’s take out the Orange trash!”

Police said 140,000 people were at the pro-Putin rally. A RIA Novosti correspondent said attendance was far lower. Other media reports also cast doubt on the figure.

Reports on Friday said state employees were being coerced into attending the rally. Putin agreed this was possible.

Back at Bolotnaya Square, veteran rock musician Yury Shevchuk took to the stage with an acoustic guitar to round things off, picking out the chords to his “Homeland” song.

“Let them shout she is ugly, but we like her, our sleeping beauty, she's too trusting of swine,” sang Shevchuk as Russians, both old and young, danced along in the snow.

“Take care of your homeland!” Shevchuk said at the end of his performance. “We’ll keep on trying!”

A new protest rally is set to take place on February 26, rally organizers said on Saturday.

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