Around 50,000 people rallied Saturday in central Moscow in protest at Russia's intervention in Ukraine, a day before the Crimean peninsula is set to hold a secession referendum.
Waving both Ukrainian and Russian flags and shouting slogans heard during the anti-government protests in Kiev, the demonstrators urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull troops back from a Cold War-style confrontation.
Marchers carried placards reading "Putin, get out of Ukraine" and others comparing Russia's move on Crimea with the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland as Europe rushed headlong into World War II.
Many of the protesters adopted the chants and slogans of Ukraine's popular uprising that ousted President Viktor Yanukovich last month.
Putin is ‘Russia’s enemy’
University professor Yelena Orlova, 47, whose sign read "Ukraine is a sovereign state", said she did not expect the rally would change her government's position, but believed it was her duty to speak out.
"I don't agree with the policy of Putin," she told AFP. "I am against the annexation of Crimea. I think Russia should respect the borders of Ukraine."
After the march, the protesters gathered on Prospekt Sakharova, the scene of huge anti-Putin rallies that shook Russia in 2011-12.
"We are patriots and Putin is Russia's enemy," activist Ilya Yashin said from the stage.
"Ukraine is a brotherly nation and we will not allow them (the government) to march us into a fratricidal war."
An AFP team at the rally said its numbers had swelled rapidly from an initial 5,000 at around 2.00pm (10:00 GMT), and stood at approximately 50,000 two hours later.
An earlier estimate from the police put the number at 3,000.
Russian police frequently downplay the size of opposition demonstrations.
Some leftist protesters were waving the black and red banners of the hugely controversial Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought both Soviet and Nazi forces during World War II.
A helicopter buzzed overhead as some chanted "The main enemy is in the Kremlin. No to fascism, no to imperialism."
At the same time, a rival demonstration was being held in support of Putin in central Moscow, attracting around 15,000 people according to police estimates.
Television cameras, which swooped over the heads of demonstrators, showed uniform lines of people wearing red and carrying red flags as speakers lashed out at "fascists" in Ukraine they say are targeting ethnic Russians.
"There will never be a Maidan in Moscow," ultra-conservative figure Sergei Kurginyan shouted from the stage, referring to the focal point of the Kiev uprising.
‘Real danger’ of invasion
Sunday will see Crimea hold a referendum over whether or not to become part of Russia, organised by the region’s newly appointed government installed after Europe-leaning activists toppled Moscow-backed Yanukovich in Kiev last month
Days after the former president’s ousting, thousands of pro-Russian gunmen took control of Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet.
Moscow, which backs the government in Crimea and refuses to recognise the new administration in Kiev, says the plebiscite is a legitimate opportunity for the largely Russian-speaking peninsula to determine its own future.
Kiev and its Western allies say the referendum is an illegal fig leaf for a land-grab by the Kremlin, which it accuses of trying to unilaterally re-draw the post WWII map of Europe.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s acting president Oleksander Turchinov accused “Kremlin agents” on Saturday of fomenting deadly violence in Russian-speaking cities in the country following the deaths of two pro-Russian protesters in clashes with police in the eastern city of Kharkiv the day before.
He urged people not to rise to provocations its new leaders fear Moscow may use to justify a further invasion after its takeover of Crimea.
From his speaker’s chair in parliament, Turchinov said there was “a real danger” of invasion by Russian troops across Ukraine’s eastern border.
Addressing members of Yanukovich’s party, Turchinov said: “You know as well as we do who is organising mass protests in eastern Ukraine - it is Kremlin agents who are organising and funding them, who are causing people to be murdered.”
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-03-15