Far-right, pro-Kremlin rallies vie on Russia unity day
Thousands of pro-Kremlin youths and far-right nationalists massed in competing rallies Thursday to mark a new Russian national unity holiday that has yet to seize the wider public imagination.
Pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (Ours) boasted it had mobilised over 15,000 people for its rally on the banks of the Moscow River while the far-right attracted at least 5,000 for an anti-immigrant rally on the city outskirts.
Organisers of both demonstrations labelled their officially sanctioned rallies "The Russian March" in an attempt to portray themselves as the true patriots of modern Russia.
National Unity Day has been marked on November 4 since 2005, when Russia's then president Vladimir Putin created the holiday to replace the November 7 commemoration of the 1917 October Revolution.
The day seeks to cement Russia's sometimes shaky post-Soviet national identity by commemorating the repulsion from the Kremlin of an invading Polish force in 1612 but polls show the wider public has little idea what it is about.
At least 5,000 people attended the rally by a collection of far-right groups including the Slavic Force movement in the southeastern Moscow district of Lublino protesting against immigration to Russia, an AFP correspondent said.
Russia has in the last years seen a huge increase in immigration, most notably of migrant workers from ex-Soviet states in Central Asia.
"Europe for Whites and Russia for Russians!" "No to Foreign Occupation!" were among the slogans brandished by the demonstrators, many of whom wore hoods or surgical masks.
Several particpants were detained after lighting fireworks and trying to beat a policeman.
A similar rally mustering some 400 people was also held in Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg. But some voices questioned whether the authorities were right to give a voice to openly racist groups.
"It is necessary to guarantee freedom of expression but I do not think that such actions are of benefit," said the head of the Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Romodanovsky.
"What ideas are they expressing? Against whom are they protesting? Against the grandchildren of those who defeated fascism? What is the good in that?" he told the Interfax news agency.
Nashi said at least 15,000 people had defied driving rain to attend its Russian March which had the avowed aim of exposing law infringements in the capital.
Participants in the rally were encouraged to take video clips of law violations that they witnessed and Nashi said thousands of such images would then be presented to the authorities.
"We are going to fight against the violations of the law that we see every day. This is our country, we live here," said Nashi official Maria Kislitsyna.
State television spent much of the day recalling the events of 1612 but the origins and purpose of the holiday remain a mystery to most Russians, according to a poll by the Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM).
Its nationwide end-October poll of 1,600 Russians found that only one percent believed National Unity Day was among Russia's most important holidays and only 10 percent could name the holiday properly.
Only 10 percent of Russians were also able to name correctly the historical origin of the holiday as the liberation of Moscow in 1612 from Polish forces, it said.
The events of 1612 brought to an end a chaotic period in Russian history known as the Time of Troubles and opened the way for the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty that ruled Russia until the Revolution.
© 2010 AFP