Tens of thousands of Russians packed into a downtown Moscow soccer stadium Thursday to shout their support for Vladimir Putin for president and voice their disapproval of other Muscovites who've taken to the streets in recent months to demand democratic reforms.
At least 100,000 people showed up for the midday rally, which appeared better organized but less feisty than recent opposition rallies. Thursday was Defenders of the Fatherland Day, an official holiday in Russia, equivalent to Veterans' Day in the US.
Demonstrators displayed pre-printed signs and banners with slogans such as "We won’t let them ruin the country," "Who, if not Putin?" and "Vote stability – Vote Putin," while powerful sound systems played World War II marching music and other patriotic songs.
At the height of the meeting, Mr. Putin appeared onstage and gave a rousing speech that warned of threats to Russia's sovereignty from abroad and promised that Russians would win not only the "battle" of the current presidential elections but also the struggles to solve the country's problems afterwards.
Putin seems assured of winning the March 4 polls, which will secure him a six-year term as president, but he has faced rising protests from middle class Russians over the Kremlin-orchestrated political process that removes serious contenders from the ballot in advance, and allegedly uses a variety of methods – including coercion and fraud – to ensure that officially-sanctioned candidates win comfortably.
"Do you love Russia?" Putin asked, to loud choruses of "Yes!" "We won’t allow anybody to interfere into our internal affairs and impose their will on us because we have our own will… We are a nation of victors. It’s in our genes… The battle for Russia is raging on. We’ll be victorious."
Though he did not mention the opposition by name, he appeared to be referring to them at one point. "We ask everyone not to look abroad, not to run to the other side and not to deceive your motherland, but to join us," he said.
Critics say the huge rally was just another use of "administrative resources," the application of official clout and funding to back the Kremlin's chosen candidate. Rally participants appeared to be overwhelmingly employees of state companies, teachers, municipal workers, and members of pro-state trade unions; opposition leaders allege many of them were coerced into coming, or given rewards such as extra days off for showing up.
According to independent media observers, Putin has received over 70 percent of TV time on state-run networks – almost always in the form of favorable coverage – and has been given vast space in newspapers owned by the government or Kremlin-friendly oligarchs to expound his vision for solving Russia's problems.
Throughout the campaign, Putin has declined to debate his four challengers, because he's too busy performing his job as prime minister.
"The idea of this rally is to produce TV images of mass support for Putin, and also to create the impression that there is an equivalent pro-Putin crowd on the streets of Moscow that balances out the opposition rallies," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant.
"But the people who come to opposition rallies are not specially bussed in, or paid, many carry hand-made signs and seem delighted to explain to you why they came out to protest. But what I found remarkable is that this pro-Putin rally was a largely silent crowd. They were supposedly there to support Putin, but most refused to be interviewed or express themselves at all to journalists," he says.
"This is not a contest of equal crowds. One crowd is spontaneous and voluntary, and the other is stage-managed. This rally was just part of the pre-election propaganda campaign, in which Putin has all the resources of the state on his side," he adds.
At least some of the people at the pro-Putin rally were willing to speak to journalists.
"We have stability and calm in this country, and it's all thanks to Putin," says Igor Malakhov, a middle-aged Moscow sanitation worker. "Why do we need to upset everything, and who are these people who are suddenly shouting in the streets? Why would anyone trust them with power? Let's stick with the good leader we already have."