MOSCOW -- What conclusions about Russian society's mood can be drawn from dueling pro and anti-regime protests on February 4? The answer, of course, depends on whom you ask -- and which side of the barricades they stood on.
For the opposition seeking to oust Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, the tens of thousands that turned out on downtown Moscow's Bolotnaya Square amid bone-chilling temperatures was an indication that their movement is still gaining momentum.
But in an interview on February 6 with "Komsomolskaya pravda" radio Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov focused on the large pro-regime rally at Poklonnaya Gora in western Moscow and drew an entirely different conclusion:
“At the very least, this earnest show of support that we saw at Poklonnaya Gora, as well as hard figures from sociologists attest to [electoral victory for Putin] in the first round [of the March 4 presidential elections],” he said.
According to police estimates, the pro-Putin demonstration question drew a whopping 138,000 people, more than the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 who reportedly attended the anti-Kremlin protest.
But the trouble with such estimates is that the Russian authorities have a track record of wildly overestimating the size of pro-regime rallies -- and underestimating opposition demonstrations.
Police estimated, for example that just 25,000 attended an opposition rally on December 10, while most independent observers put the figure as high as 70,000.
Likewise, police said only 28,000 were present at an anti-Kremlin protest on December 24, while most neutral reports estimated the crowd size between 80,000 and 100,000.
Claims Of Payments, Coercion
Moreover, it is unclear how many pro-Putin demonstrators were either bussed en masse to Poklonaya Gora in exchange for money -- or were simply coerced to attend by their bosses.
Irina Chevtayeva, a correspondent with RFE/RL’s Russian Service, was promised 500 rubles ($16) for attending the rally at Poklonnaya Gora in western Moscow.
She was driven to the rally on a bus with 67 other protesters where they were handed pre-prepared placards saying “No to chaos – Yes to Putin!” and “No to Orange-ism!” -- a reference to Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution.
A man who called himself “Maksim” explained the process to Chevtayeva ahead of the demonstration, advising her to dress warmly, bring her passport, and behave herself.
Other videos making the rounds on the Internet purport to capture similar findings. A clip posted on YouTube, which had garnered 130,000 hits at the time of publication, claims to depict a man paying demonstrators 1,000 rubles ($33) for attending.
WATCH: Footage of a man seemingly paying pro-Putin demonstrators at a rally in Moscow on February 4
Moreover, numerous reports circulated in the run-up to the rallies on February 4, claimed that teachers and other public sector workers were being ordered to attend by their superiors -- with the implicit understanding that any refusal to do so would cost them their jobs.
Yelena Travina, a director at a children’s center, told "Novaya gazeta" that she was fired
after not ordering eight teachers under her supervision to attend the pro-Putin rally.
In his interview with "Komsomolskaya pravda," Peskov dismissed such allegations out of hand:
"You can't force anyone to go to a rally now, absolutely not," he said. "You can recommend or you can call on someone to go to a rally, but if they don't want to go, they won't."
But even pro-Kremlin loyalists appeared to acknowledge statistics were being skewed.
Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin political analyst and former State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party told Interfax on February 4 that police were providing "false" turnout statistics by inflating pro-Putin figures and underestimating the opposition turnout.
RFE/RL correspondents at Poklonaya Gora estimated that there were no more than 15,000 compared to the police's 138,000.
Meanwhile police estimated only 40,000 attended the opposition protest on Bolotnaya Square, while organizers such as opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov estimated turnout at 120,000.
Protests Leave 'A Bitter Taste'
State-controlled television covered both demonstrations but focused more heavily on the pro-Putin rally and reported the police estimates uncritically.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service on February 5, Ryzhkov accused the authorities of attempting to muddy the waters.
“I get the impression that Putin simply wants to block any kind of discussion of political reform by saying: ‘Yes, fine, you are out [on the streets] demanding reform, but here are more people than you who don’t want reform.,’" he said.
"That’s why I think that yesterday [February 4] left a bitter taste in my mouth. I know that a lot of my friends from the organizing committee are euphoric and delighted that so many people turned out in the frost.
"But I feel down because I saw a signal from Putin: don’t even hope: there will be no fair elections, there will be no political reform.”