May 26, 2013
Russians protest against Putin despite pressure
Tens of thousands of Russians marched through Moscow amid a stream of banners demanding President Vladimir Putin step down and challenging new laws designed to curb protest against his strongly centralised rule.
Protesters chanting "Russia without Putin!" and "Putin is a thief!" moved in pouring rain down a central boulevard and packed a square in the first big opposition rally since the former KGB officer's return to the Kremlin for a six-year term on May 7.
"We propose to rid the country of this usurper who wants to rob us and rule for life," former deputy premier Boris Nemtsov told the crowd, repeating accusations that Putin, still unrivalled in popularity by any opposition figure, had 'stolen' March presidential elections by fraud.
On Monday, police searched the homes of several opposition leaders and summoned them for questioning an hour before Tuesday's march, a tactic Kremlin critics said smacked of the days of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Putin, 59, who built wide popularity by restoring strong central rule in Russia from the chaos of the immediate post-Soviet era, made no direct reference to the protest during a national day ceremony in the Kremlin. But he said those who rocked the boat were out to undermine Russia.
"For us, anything that weakens the country or divides society is unacceptable," he said. "Any decisions and steps that can cause social and economic shocks are impermissible."
The web sites of at least two media outlets critical of the Kremlin, including a television station trying to stream the demonstration live, were taken down in actions reminiscent of December parliamentary election that critics say were, like the later presidential poll, rigged.
Police, who had beaten protesters at a rally on May 6, the eve of Putin's inauguration, stood along the route of Tuesday's march. Helmeted riot units lined one short stretch, but the security was lighter than at previous protests dating back to the December polls and no arrests were reported.
However, the arm of the judiciary was on display, albeit subtly.
At one point in the rally, a police officer mounted the protest stage and discreetly handed summonses to Nemtsov and leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov to report for questioning by federal investigators.
One of the weaknesses of Russia's opposition is its failure to produce a clear popular leader. K senia Sobchak, a socialite who has become a Putin critic despite her late father's close ties to the president, is perhaps one of the best known through appearances on television and in the pages of glossy magazines.
"I never thought we would return to such repression in this country," she said on Twitter after police searched her home on Monday, e n tering a t 8 a.m. and seizing what they said was more than 1 million euros in cash.
Sobchak, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and another opposition leader, Ilya Yashin, were questioned for hours on Tuesday by federal investigators as witnesses in a criminal case over violence at the rally on the eve of Putin's inauguration.
"I have the feeling this is some kind of political reprisal," Sobchak, who did not attend that rally, said of her 5 1/2-hour questioning in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio. "It was all aimed at humiliation, not at getting information."
After his questioning, Navalny was taken to an office he uses by police who searched there late into the evening. Nemtsov's home was searched by investigators after the rally.
Yashin, who came to the protest after, he said, refusing to answer all 56 questions investigators posed to him in a six-hour session, sa id he was summoned to return on Friday, as was Sobchak. Uda ltsov was told to report on Wednesday.