Tens of thousands rally as Russian protests resume
Tens of thousands of Russians took part in demonstrations Saturday to protest against suspected fraud in the Dec. 4 legislative polls. Participants braved freezing temperatures in the largest public show of discontent since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
AFP - Tens of thousands of opposition supporters massed in Moscow Saturday to protest the alleged rigging of parliamentary polls, stepping up their challenge to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's authority.
The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dramatically called on Putin to quit, just as he had done when the USSR collapsed exactly two decades ago, following the anti-Putin rally which had an even sharper tone than one two weeks ago.
Clutching banners with the slogan "For Free Elections", the demonstrators thronged the capital's Sakharov Avenue, named after the Nobel Prize-winning dissident Andrei Sakharov who for years defied the Soviet authorities.
Police said 29,000 people had turned out for the Moscow rally but organisers said 120,000 filled the area to bursting point, as a sea of people stretched down the avenue as far as the eye could see.
With ex-world chess champion Garry Kasparov and former finance minister Alexei Kudrin among the speakers, the opposition showed a new confidence after a December 10 rally smashed a taboo against mass demonstrations.
The protest wave, which comes 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, is the biggest show of public anger since the chaotic 1990s and the first challenge to Putin's 12-year domination of Russia.
Protestors held up banners that earlier this year could have put them at the risk of arrest. "We woke up and this is only the beginning," said one. "Putin -- We are not sheep or slaves," read another.
The protests raise pressure on Putin to radically reform Russia's tightly controlled political system as he plans to return to the presidency in March elections after his four year stint as prime minister.
Some protestors boldly held up pictures of Putin with a giant condom draped over his head in the style of an Egyptian pharaoh, in reference to his sneering dismissal of the rallies as resembling an anti-AIDS campaign.
In a hugely provocative speech, blogger Alexei Navalny, who has emerged as one of the protest leaders, vowed that one million people would attend the next rally to demand new parliamentary elections.
"I see enough people here to take the White House (the seat of the Russian government) right now. But we are peaceful people and we will not do that -- for the moment," he said to cheers.
Gorbachev, 80, who has been virulently critical of the elections and was considering attending the rally, was not able to appear and passed his greetings to the protestors. But in an evening radio interview he called on Putin to step down.
"I would advise Vladimir Putin to leave now. He has had three terms: two as president and one as prime minister. Three terms -- that is enough," Gorbachev, who was once broadly supportive of Putin, told Moscow Echo in an interview.
"He should do the same thing I did," Gorbachev said, referring to his own resignation as Soviet president on December 25, 1991. "That way, he would be able to preserve all the positive things he did."
In a festive atmosphere, pensioners passed around flasks of tea and protestors danced to alternative Russian rock music in a bid to stay warm in the below-freezing temperatures. Police said there were no arrests.
It was not immediately clear when the next protest would be held, but some comments on the Internet -- the main forum for organising the rally -- pointed to January 14 as a possible date.
The demonstrations were ignited by incensed claims of wholesale violations in the elections that handed a reduced majority to Putin's United Russia in parliament.
The latest mass events have been sanctioned by the authorities, in a major turnaround by the police who arrested hundreds of people who took part in demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of the elections.
Smaller protests took place in other Russian cities Saturday, braving ferociously cold temperatures that reached minus 15 degrees Celsius in Siberia.
Some 4,000 people turned out in two separate demonstrations in Saint Petersburg, an AFP correspondent said, while 2,000 joined in the biggest Siberian city of Novosibirisk.
President Dmitry Medvedev this week announced reforms to appease the protestors -- including resuming elections for regional governors -- but the changes fell far short of demands for a re-run of the legislative polls.
A Kremlin panel that advises Medvedev on rights and social issues Saturday called for the resignation of Russia's election chief and snap parliamentary elections in a damning statement on "discredited" December 4 polls.
But on Wednesday, defying the protests, the newly elected lower house of parliament, the State Duma, held its first session.
The ruling United Russia party won less than half the vote in the elections and lost 77 seats as fatigue has set in with the rule of Putin who, if re-elected as president, could stay in power until 2024.
But the emboldened opposition says the party's performance would have been even worse in free elections.