Nationwide vote protest hits Putin's rule
More than 50,000 election protesters came out Saturday in Moscow while thousands more rallied across Russia in the biggest ever national show of defiance against strongman Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule.
The boisterous crowd braved a whipping snow storm to snake its way through tight police cordons and across the Moscow River to a secluded square not far from the Kremlin that authorities picked for the "For Fair Elections" protest.
The same scenes were replayed on a smaller scale in the Far East and across the industrial hubs of Siberia and the Urals -- a sign that Putin's path back to the Kremlin in March elections may be thornier than it seemed just a week ago.
"Right now there is actually a chance for us to change something in this country," said 44-year-old Anna Bekhmentova as the predominantly young demonstrators chanted "Russia without Putin" and "No to a police state!"
"No one I know voted for United Russia," said Bekhmentova while others held up banners deriding Putin's ruling party as a gang of "swindlers and thieves."
The biggest show of public anger in Moscow since the turbulent 1990s brought police helicopters out overhead and more than 50,000 officers onto the streets just six days after Putin's United Russia party clung onto power at legislative elections with the alleged help of fraud.
But fury over the ballot and signs of Kremlin weakness have stirred many to call not only for a new vote but also an end to the stage-managed political system that ex-KGB agent Putin introduced on his sudden rise to power in 2000.
"People who have connections to the authorities feel like they can do anything," said 26-year-old lawyer Yelizaveta Derenkovskaya, summing up the disgruntled mood of many who turned out.
"I came to support people who want to change this system."
Police reported making no arrests while putting turnout figures at 25,000 for Moscow and 10,000 for Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg where both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev grew up.
But organisers and opposition lawmakers put the Moscow turnout at 50,000-80,000 -- with some saying more than 100,000 had come out in a display of people's power never before seen in the Putin era.
"Many of my friends came out to a rally for the very first time in their lives. And others came for the first time since the 1990s," environmental campaigner Yevgenia Chirikova, who spoke at the rally, wrote on Twitter.
The rolling rallies kicked off in Far Eastern hubs such as Khabarovsk where more than 50 people were detained during an unsanctioned rally attended by some 400 people in minus 15 degree Celsius (five degrees Fahrenheit) chills.
Organisers also reported 5,000 showing up in the struggling industrial town of Chelyabinsk and up to 4,000 in nearby Urals Mountains city of Yekaterinburg while similar rallies were also reported in Western Siberia and the south.
Putin's party -- bruised by corruption allegations and comparisons to the Soviet-era Communist Party -- lost its tight grip on parliament while keeping a slim majority that its foes claim was exaggerated by a corrupt vote count.
Their complaints were supported by a flood of video footage shot by ordinary Russians and posted on the Internet appearing to show ballot stuffing and other widespread manipulation.
The poll was seen as a litmus test of Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin in the March presidential ballot, via a stage-managed job swap with Medvedev, and appeared to expose a chink in his armour after more than a decade of dominant rule.
Putin accepted the vote's outcome and stayed silent about the protests for three days before accusing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of inciting the unrest by questioning the elections.
The 59-year-old has been Russia's most popular and powerful politician as president from 2000 until 2008 and since then premier -- an image he cultivated with tough talk against foreign powers and warm words for the Soviet past.
But analysts say rapid social change and the Internet's growing penetration in Russia may have caught Kremlin strategists off guard amid signs that Putin's imminent return as head of state is less welcome than originally thought.
A running public opinion poll conducted by the independent Levada Centre showed Putin's ratings taking a dive immediately after his planned return to the Kremlin was announced on September 24.
The opposition to Putin is also expanding beyond a narrow base of veteran liberals and far-right nationalists to attract popular cultural figures with broad appeal such as detective story writer Boris Akunin
"I have not seen Moscow like this for 20 years," Akunin told the Moscow crowd from the stage before adding that it was his first speaking appearance at a rally of any kind.
© 2011 AFP