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Thousands Take Part In Antigovernment Protests Across Russia

  • Brian Whitmore

Some 1,500 opposition supporters rallied in two separate protests in St. Petersburg.

Some 1,500 opposition supporters rallied in two separate protests in St. Petersburg.

There were communists, democrats, and free-market liberals. There were human rights activists and automobile enthusiasts. There were nationally known opposition leaders and ordinary workers and pensioners.

The thousands of protesters who rallied today in cities across Russia's 11 time zones -- from Vladivostok in the east to Kaliningrad in the west -- came from diverse political backgrounds and voiced various local grievances. But they agreed on one thing: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his government had botched its response to the economic crisis, had overstayed its welcome, and had to go.

Police did not intervene in the St. Petersburg rallies.
Dubbed the "Day of Wrath" by organizers, the demonstrations in dozens of Russian cities were organized by a variety of groups, including the opposition Solidarity movement, the Federation of Russian Motorists, the Communist Party, and various local organizations.

They came as the global economic crisis has stifled the growth and rising living standards that Russians have enjoyed over the past decade, severely damaging the ruling elite's credibility.

'First Victory Of This Coalition'

In the earliest rally, an estimated 2,000 protesters braved the cold in the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok, carrying placards reading "No to Taxes" and "Enough Coddling Oligarchs at the Expense of the People!"

To cheers from the crowd on the city's snow-covered central square, organizers read out a list of demands, including the resignation of Putin's government, the removal of regional Governor Sergei Darkin, and a return to the direct election of regional leaders.

Vladimir Bespalov, a Communist Party member who help organize the protest, said the demonstration's strength resulted from its diversity.

"They threatened us. They pressured us," Bespalov said. "But our victory resulted from the fact that not just the Communist Party came out and participated, but rather a coalition of left-wing and right-wing opposition forces. They are frightened. For the first time in years, the central square is ours. This is the first victory of this coalition."

WATCH: Thousands of people attended antigovernment rallies in Vladivostok and Irkutsk:

There were similar sentiments in Irkutsk.

The nationally known liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov traveled to the Siberian city and addressed a rally of approximately 1,500. Nemtsov praised Irkutsk for rejecting the ruling United Russia party's candidate for mayor in local elections last week, voting for communist Viktor Kondrashov in a landslide.

"You are an example for all of Russia. Many people in Russia think nothing depends on them. Many people in Russia think the party of corrupt bureaucrats, the party of oligarchs, has seized power and plans to hold on to it forever," Nemtsov said. "But you in Irkutsk have shown them that the will of the people means something. You are beautiful. You are an example for us all."

'Baikal Is Ours'

Much of the demonstration in Irkutsk focused on public anger over Putin's decision to reopen the Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mills, a move staunchly opposed by environmentalists because the plant will dump waste into Lake Baikal.

Protest organizer Vladimir Naumov called on the protesters to take back control of their region from Putin and wealthy oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska, who controls the paper mill.

"You must take responsibility for yourselves and for your lives. We must say that Baikal is ours," Naumov said. "We are responsible for it -- not Deripaska, not Putin, only us."

Russia has witnessed scattered antigovernment rallies in recent months, sparked by local grievances that quickly escalated into open dissent against the ruling elite in Moscow. This trend toward mass protests attended by thousands of ordinary people, which has been growing over the past year, marks a sharp departure from the small demonstrations attended by a handful of opposition figures that were the norm in past years.

Police scuffle with protesters in Moscow.
Today's coordinated nationwide protest was an attempt to harness the festering discontent into a national movement.

'More Than Enough Time'

Analysts say that while anti-Putin sentiment is certainly growing, it hasn't yet reached the critical mass necessary to threaten his grip on power.

"When a person has ruled a country for 11 years -- and this is a more open country than North Korea or Cuba -- it causes a sense that this is more than enough time," says Leonid Radzihovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst. "And on top of this you have the crisis. But converting this mood into realistic political moves against Putin is another matter entirely."

According to public opinion polls, Putin remains popular. But a recent survey by the independent Levada Center showed simmering discontent. According to the poll, nine out of 10 Russians said they have no influence over what happens in the country; one-third are worried about human rights abuses; and more than two-thirds said they don’t feel protected by the law. Only 4 percent said they feel their property is secure.

In many cities today -- including Moscow, Kaliningrad, and Vladivostok -- local authorities had banned the rallies, setting the stage for confrontations between demonstrators and police.

In Kaliningrad, demonstrators defied the ban, convening a flash mob on the city's central square where an estimated 2,000 people smashed tangerines and called for the resignation of Governor Georgy Boos.

St. Petersburg held two demonstrations. One, organized by the liberal Yabloko party, the United Civic Front, and other organizations, attracted an estimated 1,000 people at a sports complex on the city's outskirts. They held signs reading "Putin's Team Must Resign!" and "Gazprom Go Home!"

A second protest at the city's Finland Railway Station, organized by the Communist Party, drew approximately 500 demonstrators. Police didn't intervene in either St. Petersburg protest.

Police arrest an opposition supporter at an unsanctioned rally in Moscow.
In Moscow, 400 to 500 people gathered on the capital's downtown Pushkin Square, despite being barred from doing so by local authorities.

Sergei Udaltsov, one of the organizers of the protest, appealed to the estimated 100 police officers surrounding the protesters.

"We aren't extremists. We aren't hooligans. We just came here to have a peaceful protest," he said. "Today we will see if the police will let us do this or not."

Soon thereafter, police moved in, arrested Udaltsov and others, broke up the demonstration, and arrested an estimated 30 to 50 people.

A second demonstration in Moscow, organized by the Federation of Russian Motorists, was allowed to proceed. That protest was sparked by an automobile accident involving LUKoil Vice President Anatoly Barkov in which two women -- 36-year-old Olga Aleksandrina and 72-year-old Vera Sidelnikova -- were killed.

Witnesses said Barkov's armored Mercedes caused the accident by driving into the wrong lane to avoid a traffic jam. Barkov and his driver were unharmed. Police have attempted to blame the crash on Aleksandrina.

"The word 'never' is a frightening word," Aleksandrina's father, Sergei, told the protesters. "I will never see my daughter again. She will never again come to see me. We will never again talk about anything. Her daughter will never again see her mother. There is only one reason for this. Somebody thought they had the right to do whatever they want to on our roads."

Car owners took part in a separate rally in Moscow.
Anti-Putin Petition

Today's protests follow a series of demonstrations and other acts of dissent in recent months.

On March 10, a petition appeared on the Internet calling for Putin's resignation that attracted more than 10,000 signatures.

Rock icon Yury Shevchuk, front man for the band DDT, launched into a four-minute diatribe against the Kremlin elite during a recent concert in Moscow, drawing enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.

The actor Aleksei Devotchenko -- star of popular TV crime shows like "Streets of Broken Lamps" and "Bandit St. Petersburg" -- posted a diary on the Internet criticizing his colleagues in the music industry for cozying up to the Kremlin and making "pseudopatriotic" propaganda films.

Scattered but consistent protests have cropped up in various towns and cities including protests in the east Siberian town of Irkutsk over environmental issues, in the Moscow suburb of Rechnik over authorities' plans to destroy a residential community, and in the Moscow Oblast town of Zhukovsky over government corruption.

The biggest protest so far took place in Kaliningrad in late January, when a demonstration against a new transportation tax mushroomed into a massive rally calling for Putin's resignation that attracted more than 10,000 people.

with contributions from RFE/RL's Russian Service in Vladivostok, Irkutsk, St. Petersburg, and Moscow; Gregory Feifer in Kaliningrad; and Farangis Najibullah in Prague

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