Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s supporters mobilized thousands for the biggest demonstration in Moscow in two decades as they sought to steal the spotlight from rival protests against electoral fraud.
A pro-government rally held near a World War II memorial park mustered 138,000 people, Moscow police said. Opponents of the Russian leader say they gathered at least 120,000 in subzero temperatures for a march to Bolotnaya Square, an island south of the Kremlin, while city police put the number at 36,000, according to a statement on their website.
The show of force by Putin’s backers is seeking to bolster the premier’s bid to reclaim the presidency in March elections after his ruling party saw its two-thirds parliamentary majority cut to just over half. Tens of thousands protested in Moscow and across the country in December in the biggest challenge since Putin first won the presidency in 2000 after allegations of mass fraud in the State Duma vote.
“Putin understands we are a serious threat for him,” said Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader and blogger. “Today they are busing in tens of thousands of people, government employees, from around the country for their rally.”
Temperatures were as low as negative 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit) in Moscow. Smaller rallies were held in cities across the country, state television reported. The demonstrations in the capital brought 175,000 on to the streets, according to official police estimates.
From the stage, speakers at the pro-government rally called on demonstrators not to allow mass protests to turn into political unrest styled after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Slogans included “Glory to Russia” and “Down With the Orange Plague.”
“The people coming out on Poklonnaya Gora will earnestly declare their anti-Orange position,” Putin said in an interview with Interfax last night, referring to street protests in 2004 that eventually toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian leadership. “I’m grateful to them and I share their views.”
Putin announced in September his plan to retake the Kremlin from his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, after serving the maximum two consecutive terms allowed by the constitution between 2000 and 2008.
The Central Electoral Commission has barred Grigory Yavlinsky, who heads the pro-democracy Yabloko party, from challenging Putin, saying signatures gathered to support his application were invalid. Speaking at the protest, Yavlinsky urged supporters to “unite” to show that “morality can be a leading force in politics.”
Paris in 1968
“Everyone is becoming political,” said Yelena Grinina, 19, a geology student at the Moscow State University attending the opposition rally. “It’s like Paris in 1968. Something is happening, although we don’t where it will lead. Hopefully to something better but who knows.”
Putin, 59, is fighting to get more than 50 percent of the vote on March 4 to avoid a runoff, which his opponents say can only be achieved with ballot-stuffing. A second round between the top-scoring candidates would be held three weeks after the first round.
Oleg Zhuzhlin, a 32-year-old computer software programmer, said he voted for the Yabloko party in the parliamentary elections and was angry that its candidate hadn’t been allowed to contest next month’s polls.
“I would rather die of frostbite than miss the protest,” said Zhuzhlin, who was dancing and singing along to a song by the musician Yuri Shevchuk. “We want to shame Putin out of office. Anybody else will do.”
The premier’s backing is close to the threshold needed for an outright victory. His support rose to 52 percent in the latest poll released yesterday by the state-run All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM, from 49 percent in a survey published a week earlier.
The Russian leader polled at 46 percent, up from 44 percent a week earlier, at the Public Opinion Foundation. He may get as low as 37 percent of the vote, according to a Jan. 20-23 opinion poll by the independent Levada Center.
“I think something has changed with the political protests, something has changed irreparably,” Masha Gordon, who oversees about $1.2 billion in emerging-market equities at Pacific Investment Management Co., said in an interview in Moscow on Feb. 2. “That’s the notion that you can no longer just have an unaccountable hold of power.”
Russian equities are the least expensive of the so-called BRIC countries, with the 30 stocks in the benchmark Micex Index trading at 5.7 times earnings. That compares with a ratio of 16 for India, 12.2 for China and 10.6 for Brazil, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
The Micex surged to its sixth week of gains, added 1.5 percent to 1,564.82 by the close in Moscow yesterday and taking its weekly increase to 3.8 percent, the most since the period ending Dec. 4. The Russian benchmark index has gained 12 percent this year compared with a 14 percent return for the MSCI Emerging Markets Index.
Most of Putin’s challengers in the March 4 presidential election have called for new parliamentary polls at the end of this year, accusing the authorities of inflating United Russia’s vote on Dec. 4 from 30 percent to about 50 percent. The government has rejected the demands, insisting the legislative polls were fair.
Sberbank, Russian Post
Employees of state-run companies, including OAO Sberbank and Russian Post, were ordered to attend the rally backing Putin today, Echo Moskvy radio reported. Russian Post vehicles were being used to carry away signs from the demonstration.
OAO Rosneft, Russia’s largest state-run oil producer, asked employees to attend the pro-government rally and carry out their “civic duty,” according to a copy of the instructions obtained by Bloomberg, which contained a map of the site.
Rustam Kazharov, a Rosneft spokesman, wouldn’t confirm the letter when reached by phone today.
The prime minister has accused foreign powers of financing the protests to destabilize Russia. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s criticism of the parliamentary vote emboldened the opposition and “sent a signal” to activists, Putin said Dec. 8.
Russia’s Investigative Committee today said that video material on the Internet that showed alleged voter fraud had been distributed from a server located in California. Investigators are “taking measures to establish the authors of this video material and who ordered it,” the committee said in a statement on its website today.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party gathered about 1,000 people for a rally on Pushkin Square, city police said in a statement. About 150 people have turned out so far for another protest against election falsifications on Prospekt Sakharova, which hosted the last mass protest, police said.
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and the LDPR’s Zhirinovsky will each get 8 percent according to VTsIOM, followed by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and former Putin ally Sergei Mironov at 4 percent. The pollster interviewed 1,600 Russians from Jan. 28-29, with a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.