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Workers Of The World, Rally!


Pro-government supporters at a rally in support of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 4.

Pro-government supporters at a rally in support of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow on February 4.

MOSCOW -- Normally, Sergei Morozov spends his time wrangling actors for crowd scenes in movies.

But during campaign seasons, the job changes slightly. Morozov still builds crowds -- but for political parties instead of movie directors.

However, his latest job -- delivering a throng to the February 4 rally in support of Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Vladimir Putin -- proved to be a disappointment:

"I needed to gather 250 people," he said. They were told they'd get 500 rubles apiece. But at the end of the rally they counted just 85 of our people; 160 people didn't get paid for their work. They promised to pay after the rally, but they didn't. United Russia failed to meet its obligations."

WATCH: Disgruntled Russian protesters claim they never received money they claim they were promised for attending a pro-regime rally.

Moscow police say nearly 140,000 people attended the pro-Putin rally at Poklonnaya Gora, held a month before Putin hopes to return to the country's presidency in elections on March 4.

Dueling Protests

The protest, which took place in freezing-cold temperatures, was held at the same time as an opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square that drew an estimated crowd of 80,000 to 100,000.

The pro-regime rally may have had the bigger numbers in what is proving a heated election season.

But evidence is mounting that many of its participants were lured by an offer of cash -- or forcibly delivered by their employers and trade unions under threat of disciplinary action.

United Russia, which organized the rally, has denied any claim of crowd-renting. Natalya Burtseva, a spokesperson for the party's Moscow branch, maintains that such suggestions are a "provocation":

"We didn't force anyone to come; we didn't make any such arrangements, either orally or in writing," she said. "The one thing we did, of course, was invite people to the rally, and those who wanted to came. All the rest is rumor and speculation."

'Forced To Attend'

But numerous participants have come forward to say their presence at the rally was far from spontaneous.

Russia's Public Chamber, a governmental oversight group, says it had registered close to 200 complaints from schoolteachers who said they were forced to attend the pro-Putin rally.

Complaints came from other public-sectors as well. Yelena, an employee with the MosEnergo energy firm, claims she and her co-workers were informed about the rally by managers who sweetened the deal with informal promises of two days off:

"They put up an announcement telling us that it was necessary to appear on a certain date, at a certain time and place, where a gathering was being organized," she said. "So we came, and they registered us. Then we got on a bus and they took us there."

The exploitation of public sector employees for political rallies is, for many, an uncomfortable throwback to the Soviet era, when trade unions were obligated to contribute staff for rallies and other public gatherings.

But in a country where the physical demonstration of popular support remains more influential than candidate debates or campaign rhetoric, the trend is likely to continue.

Some workers who have resisted participating in rallies say they have paid immediate consequences.

Unions Are A Pro-Regime 'Instrument'

Yelena Travina, the director of a children's education center, suggests that her trouble began when she and other mid-level education administrators were informed by their trade union that they were expected to attend the February 4 rally and that those who couldn't should "have their refusal registered" with the head of the education department.

"To me that sounded like pressure," Travina said.

Travina was ordered to deliver eight employees to the event. Instead she spoke frankly to her staff about what she saw as political coercion. The next day, she was asked to resign.

Although that request has since been rescinded, Travina says she has second thoughts about returning to the post.

Andrei Demidov, the co-chair of a regional teachers' trade union, says Travina's story reveals a lot about the political pressures facing many union employees.

"It's precisely the Public Education and Science Workers Union that should be protecting workers from administrative pressure," Demidov said. "But in this case the union became its instrument."

Daisy Sindelar contributed to this report from Prague

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