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Russia: Fans Rally For Putin, But Most Media Left Outside

  • Chloe Arnold --> Vladimir Putin addressing today's rally (AFP) MOSCOW, November 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For dozens of members of the Russian and foreign media, the closest they could get to a political rally for President Vladimir Putin's party today was two men in Unified Russia caps, scarves, and sweatshirts.

They were standing outside the sports stadium in central Moscow, chanting a poem they had written in praise of the president. And as they recited their verses -- over and over again -- they held photographs of the president to their chests and waved Russian flags.

Behind them, a long line of Interior Ministry troops in full riot gear checked and double-checked the invitations of the young participants against their passports before they let them through to the other side of the barrier.

But even as thousands of young Putin supporters gathered and pledged to vote for his Unified Russia party in parliamentary elections on December 2, many members of the media were told they were not welcome.

Angry journalists and photographers remonstrated with one of the organizers, asking why they were not admitted. But the organizer simply told them their names were not on the list. And, he added, even if they had been, they should have been on the special media buses that left for the event at 7.30 a.m. -- 4 1/2 hours before ceremonies were due to begin.

One Russian producer for a foreign television network said there was no point in arguing. "The Kremlin has a list of those they want to invite, and if you aren't on that list, you cannot get in, no matter how many letters you write or telephone calls you make," she told RFE/RL.

Rapturous Welcome

By 11:30 a.m., the stadium was full and most of the journalists left outside had packed up and gone. There were no cameras to see two angry supporters demanding money from a girl with a clipboard, who had come from inside the stadium. They had shown up with their invitations, but they weren't allowed in because they had left their passports at home. Eventually she gave them 550 rubles ($22.6) and they headed back to the subway.

But if some of the participants appeared to be receiving money for coming to the event, the atmosphere inside the stadium was festive, according to Andrei Kolesnikov, a political commentator at the daily "Kommersant" who had been granted access to the rally.

"Before the president arrived there was a concert and, yes, there were some songs that were absolutely Soviet in character," Kolesnikov said. "But there were also a lot of songs more appropriate for the auditorium, for example singers from the Star Factory television show," a popular show that makes stars out of young Russian hopefuls.

'For Putin' at today's rally (ITAR-TASS)

Moments later, a cheer that could be heard from outside went up, and President Putin stepped onto the stage. "I gave my consent to top the list of Unified Russia and I did this absolutely consciously, because I believe that in this way I can help the formation of an authoritative and capable legislative power," Putin told his cheering supporters.

An hour later, Putin's fans spilled out into the car park, clutching bags stamped with the Russian coat of arms that were filled with gifts -- large white teddy bears, "I'm saving my vote for Putin" badges, and Unified Russia flags and balloons.

A group of pensioners told RFE/RL they were very pleased with how the rally had gone. "It was great fun! It was wonderful! We saw our president!" they said. "That was the most important thing for us -- that he found the time to come and talk to us, and for that we are very grateful."

Free And Fair?

Galina Kuznetsova, a student, who had traveled 4 1/2 hours from Ivanovo, said she, too, was very pleased to see the president. "I'm 23 years old, and I've been a member of Unified Russia's youth movement, Nashi, for 2 1/2 years now, and I'm very proud of that," she said.

She said she would definitely vote for Unified Russia in the forthcoming elections, but she wasn't sure whether they would be free and fair. "I think, yes, there are independent observers who are following these elections," she said. "There are already election campaigns going on, and everyone will make their own decision about what's right. As to whether there will be falsifications, I can't guarantee that 100 percent, but for that there are observers, people who are working on this, so I think everything should be OK."

Last week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) election-monitoring office said it would not be observing next week's vote because the Russian government had made it almost impossible for it to operate. The Kremlin blamed the OSCE for not filling in the right forms.

By 4 p.m., the rally-goers had piled back onto buses going to Lipetsk, Smolensk, Tambov, Kursk, and parts of Siberia. Only a handful of policemen remained and a half-dozen street sweepers, clearing away the battered flags that littered the ground.

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)