May 23, 2013
Russians stage rival protests over Putin
Tens of thousands of Russians defied bitter cold in Moscow to demand fair elections in a march against Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule, and thousands of others staged a rally supporting the prime minister.
Opposition protesters also organised smaller protests in other cities across the vast country, one month before the March 4 presidential election which Putin is expected to win.
Putin was president from 2000 until 2008, when he ushered Dmitry Medevedev into the Kremlin because of a constitutional ban on three successive terms as head of state. Putin became prime minister but remained the dominant leader.
Temperatures far below freezing tested the power and perseverance of a street protest movement fuelled by suspicions of fraud in a December parliamentary election and dismay among some Russians over Putin's plan to rule at least six more years.
In the capital, tens of thousands of demonstrators bundled up against the cold marched down a broad central street, many wearing white ribbons that have become symbols of protests. A digital clock flashed the midday temperature: minus 17 C (1 F).
Opposition leaders are trying to maintain momentum after tens of thousands turned out on Dec. 10 and Dec. 24 for the biggest opposition protests since Putin was first elected president in 2000.
"We have already reached a point of no return. People have stopped being afraid and see how strong they are together," said Ivan Kositsky, 49. He said Putin "wants stability, but you can only find stability in the graveyard."
Kositsky wore an orange ribbon in a reference to the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where peaceful protests following allegations of widespread election fraud helped usher an opposition candidate to the presidency.
Opposition leaders said up to 100,000 people had joined their protest in Moscow, which appeared as large as the last December rally.
Police said up to 90,000 people were at the pro-Putin rally a few miles (kilometres) away in Moscow, but attendance at demonstrations in support of the former KGB spy has previously been swelled by the authorities ferrying in sympathisers by bus.
Teachers have said they came under pressure from trade unions to attend the pro-Putin rally.
"Trade union representatives called us together and said at least five to 10 people from each school had to go (to the Putin rally)," said Sergei Bedchuk, a 54-year-old headteacher at the opposition protest in Moscow.
"I have something I believe in. We could not go there," he said, his daughter at his side with white ribbons in her hair.
The main opposition protests were suspended over the long New Year holiday, when Russia comes to a halt. Opposition activists had been concerned that the protests might lose momentum after Putin, 59, ignored all their main demands.
The protesters want a rerun of the parliamentary election, the release of prisoners jailed for political reasons, reform of the political system, dismissal of the central election commission chief and registration of more political parties.
Crowds of a few hundred turned out to protest against Putin in other cities across Russia, although the number protesting is still only a small part of the more than 140 million population.
On a central street in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, demonstrators carried banners reading "Putin - out!" and "The crook is making for the throne again ... send him to a prison bunk."
In Moscow, protesters had banners making light of the cold weather.
"Down with the cold, down with Putin," one banner said. Another declared: "We are frozen in solidarity."
The protesters are angered by allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election on Dec. 4 that was won by Putin's ruling United Russia party, albeit with a reduced majority in the lower house.
The plan by Putin and Medvedev to swap jobs after the presidential election is viewed by opposition supporters as openly flouting democracy.
"We are not sheep or cattle. We deserve respect," said Marat Yafov, 54, a lawyer at the Moscow protest. "We are out in the cold because we can't let this moment go, we have to keep the protest going."