TENS OF THOUSANDS of people today held the largest anti-government protests that post-Soviet Russia has ever seen to criticise electoral fraud and demand an end to Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Police showed surprising restraint and state-controlled TV gave the nationwide demonstrations unexpected airtime.
Putin’s United Party retained a narrow majority in recent parliamentary elections, though it lost a substantial share of its seats.
The independent Russian election-observer group Golos said Saturday that the party “achieved the majority mandate by falsification.”
International observers reported widespread irregularities, and the outpouring of Russians publicly denouncing him throughout the country undermines Putin’s carefully nurtured image of a strong and beloved leader.
Putin “has stopped being the national leader — in the eyes of his team, the ruling political class and society,” analyst Alexei Malachenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center wrote on his blog.
Putin, who was the president of Russia in 2000-2008 before stepping aside because of term limits, will seek a new term in the Kremlin in the March presidential elections.
The most dramatic of Saturday’s protests saw a vast crowd jam an expansive Moscow square and adjacent streets, packed so tight that some demonstrators stood on others’ toes. Although police estimated the crowd at 30,000, aerial photographs suggested far more, and protest organizers made claims ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 or more.
Elsewhere in Russia, some 7,000 protesters assembled in St Petersburg, and demonstrations ranging from a few hundred people to a thousand took place in more than 60 other cities. Police reported only about 100 arrests nationwide, a notably low number for a force that characteristically quick and harsh action against opposition gatherings.
State-controlled television, which generally ignores or disparages opposition groups, broadcast footage not only of the Moscow protest — which was so big it would have been hard not to report — but in several other cities as well.