Huge protest demanding fair Russian elections hits Moscow

Russian protesters angry at what they say are rigged elections and the authoritarian ways of Vladimir Putin, flooded Moscow today demanding change.

Mikhail Metzel/AP
Protesters shout slogans during a protest against alleged vote rigging in Russia's parliamentary elections on Sakharov avenue in Moscow, Russia, Saturday. Tens of thousands of demonstrators on Saturday cheered opposition leaders and jeered the Kremlin in the largest protest in the Russian capital so far against election fraud, signaling growing outrage over Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule.

At least 50,000 protesters flooded a downtown Moscow avenue Saturday to demand honest elections, in an impressive show of strength that dwarfed a rally two weeks ago and affirmed that a surging pro-democracy mood among Russia's frustrated middle class is not likely to fade soon.

Even police said the crowd was much larger than the earlier one on Bolotnaya Square, which was hailed as the biggest protest rally in Moscow since the collapse of the USSR 20 years ago.

"I see enough people to take the Kremlin right now," anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny told the wildly cheering crowd.

Mr. Navalny, who was imprisoned for 15 days for taking part in the post-election protest, is best known as the author of the hyper-popular phrase "party of rogues and thieves" used to describe Vladimir Putin's United Russia.

"But we are a peaceful force, we won’t do it – yet. But if the rogues and thieves continue trying to deceive us and lie to us, we will come for it. (Power) belongs to us," he added.

People waved homemade signs, with a staggering variety of messages, and many wore the white ribbons that have emerged as the symbol of Russia's "Winter Revolution."

Most said they hadn't come out to support any particular political force or leader but just to express their anger over what they believe was a stolen parliamentary election that returned the United Russia party with a diminished but still dominant 50 percent share of the seats.

'Tired of the lies'

More generally, the mostly youthful crowd seemed fed up with the Putin-era system of "managed democracy," which features limited electoral choices, a straitjacketed media and unaccountable, corrupt, and often arrogant authorities.

"We're tired of all the lies, the endless corruption, and feel like we are ready to participate in making decisions," said Vladimir Kuvshinsky, a 30-something network administrator in an IT firm. "We don't want another tyrant, we want a normal government. And we don't want our opinions to be treated like garbage anymore."

Most protesters focused their frustration on Mr. Putin, who has effectively been in charge of Russia for the past 12 years and announced last September that he will seek election as president under the banner of United Russia, which could see him running the Kremlin for another 12 years.

"We don't want 12 more years of Putin's dictatorship," said Ksenia Atarova, who described herself as a writer and critic. "The people have woken up at last, and they want fair elections and a chance to voice their resentment about a lot of things that are happening in this country. We're not going back into the box."

Some also blamed Putin for failing to heed the rising clamor for new elections, and a general attitude of contempt toward the protesters that he expressed repeatedly during a four hour Q & A session on TV ten days ago.

Among other things, Putin suggested protest organizers were in the pay of foreign powers, and mocked the white ribbons worn by participants as resembling "folded condoms."

Backing off

Police were polite and mostly unobtrusive, a dramatic change from the crackdown and hundreds of arrests they carried out during the first week of rallies following the controversial Dec. 4 election.

But they did barricade the entire space, known as Academician Sakharov Prospekt -- after the Nobel prizewinning Soviet dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov -- and filtered all rally participants through metal detectors and body searches.

Many protesters said they don't expect Russian authorities to listen to their complaints, and some heaped scorn on President Dmitry Medvedev's pledge to enact some halfhearted political reforms made in his final state-of-the-nation address last week.

"Medvedev is a lame duck, and even when he was supposedly president he never kept any of his promises," said protester Maya Safranova, a teacher. "I've stopped listening to him."

Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a longtime ally of Putin who was fired last September, told the crowd that he supports their demands. "We need to explain seriously that these elections were not fair and that the people responsible for the falsifications must be judged," he said, adding a demand that the head of Russia's official electoral commission be fired.

New party?

Mr. Kudrin has suggested that he might form a new liberal party to appeal to Russia's emerging middle class, to boost the evolution of democracy and avoid the specter of state breakdown that has haunted Russia for the past century.

Another prominent rally supporter is former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who resigned as the USSR ended 20 years ago. He told the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta Saturday that the disputed Duma elections should be cancelled and news ones held under fair conditions.

"How can you keep this Duma for another five years during such a difficult time in history?" Mr. Gorbachev said. Russia will soon shut down for the New Year holiday, which typically lasts for the first ten days of January, but protest organizers said they are preparing to stage fresh rallies in February, amid the coming presidential elections.

"I'm ready to keep coming out, and I think step-by-step we're going to build democracy in this country," said Danil Zak, a manager. "After the New Year, most young people, most modern people, will take up this cause again and see it through.

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