Thousands of protesters have gathered in Moscow in a show of anger over disputed parliamentary polls. The opposition says the protest – on an island just south of the Kremlin – could become the largest the country has seen in two decades. Smaller rallies have taken place in cities across the country.
Protesters allege there was widespread fraud in Sunday’s polls – though the ruling United Russia party saw its share of the vote fall sharply. Hundreds of people have been arrested during anti-Putin protests over the past week, mainly in Moscow and St Petersburg. At least 50,000 police and riot troops were deployed in Moscow ahead of Saturday’s protests.
Authorities have permitted up to 30,000 to attend the demonstration dubbed “For Fair Elections”. Thousands have turned out for rallies in cities across the Urals and Siberia and as far east as Vladivostok. The protesters have got one demand – for the elections to be held again. Nobody believes they were free and fair. Many are also asking that the head of the election commission stands down, and some are going even further and demanding that Vladimir Putin himself resigns.
There’s a real sense of anger – and although the numbers are not that big in global terms, in Moscow terms this is a very, very significant demonstration. This number simply haven’t come out onto the streets of Moscow since 1990s. It should not be underestimated what a significant moment this is. It may not deal a fatal blow to Mr Putin’s government, but it is certainly the most severe wake-up call he has received during 12 years in power.
Police say at least 25,000 people – among them communists, nationalists and liberals – have thronged in Moscow. Authorities permitted the protest on condition the rally was relocated from central Revolution Square to Bolotnaya Square, an island in the Moscow River just south of the Kremlin where access points can be easily controlled. Hundreds of police are standing by to make sure they do not rally in Revolution Square, though Reuters news agency said hundreds of people had gathered there anyway.
“This is history in the making for Russia,” Reuters quoted a 41-year-old employee in the financial services sector, who gave his name only as Anton, as saying in Revolution Square. “The people are coming out to demand justice for the first time in two decades, justice in the elections.” The BBC’s Daniel Sandford in Moscow says in the past week, the city has resembled a police state rather than a democracy.
If the protests come even close to expectations, they will shake the 12-year-long political domination of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, he says. The authorities permitted demonstrations to take place in specific locations in certain cities after negotiations with opposition leaders. In St Petersburg, 13,000 people have pledged on the social networking site Vkontakte to take part in protests, with another 20,000 saying they might take part.