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Russian Health Inspector Warns Would-Be Protesters Of Risk From Cold

  • Tom Balmforth

Chief health inspector Gennady Onishchenko

Chief health inspector Gennady Onishchenko

MOSCOW – Stay home and pray, but if you must go out, be sure to wear "granny's felt boots."

These were the twin messages coming from two top Russian officials just days ahead of a major anti-Kremlin rally scheduled for February 4 in Moscow.

Russia's top health official, Gennady Onishchenko, warned darkly on February 2 that with an icy cold snap gripping Russia and much of Europe, sipping hot tea would not be enough to protect protesters out on the streets.

Onishchenko added that he was concerned that trendily dressed Muscovites are no longer equipped for bitterly cold winters.

Tens of thousands of anti-Kremlin protesters are expected to attend the upcoming rally, with separate demonstrations in support of Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin also scheduled for the same day.

“Whatever side you are on, I categorically forbid you going to the protest wearing the clothes you [usually] wear," Onishchenko said in remarks reported by Russian news agencies.

"Get hold of your granny’s felt boots and sheepskin coats that aren’t moth-eaten and which used to be a sign of luxurious prosperity in the eighties, and then you can go to either protest.”

It was not the first time the 61-year-old Onishchenko issued a dire health warning ahead of a major anti-government protest.

Kremlin-Tailored Health Decrees

Last month, Onishchenko warned opposition protesters to stay away from anti-Kremlin demonstrations on December 10 saying they could catch the flu.

Onishchenko, who has a reputation for issuing Kremlin-tailored health decrees, insisted that his warnings apply to pro-Putin as well as opposition sympathizers.

Weather forecasts say temperatures will be minus 16 degrees Celsius in Moscow on February 2.

February 1 was Moscow’s frostiest night so far this year as temperatures plunged to minus 28 degrees Centigrade.

Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill I, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, is advising people to just stay home.

In remarks on February 2, Kirill said flatly that Russian Orthodox Christians do not attend protests, but instead “pray in quiet monasteries, monastic cells and at home.”

The patriarch added that “Russians don’t know how to protest” and that "our strength is in prayer."

Kirill also chided protest leaders for manipulating the “mood of the people.”

Headache For Opposition Leaders

The icy snap in the capital has been a headache for opposition leaders who are trying to maintain the protest movement’s momentum, which snowballed following allegations of massive fraud in the December 4 parliamentary elections.

Opposition leaders say they plan to keep their supporters on downtown Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square for a shorter time than in previous protests to stop them getting cold after marching just under two kilometers to the protest site.

A pro-Putin rally billed as an “anti-Orange protest” is simultaneously scheduled in western Moscow. Its organizers promise to amass tens of thousands of pro-Kremlin supporters, although teachers and other public sector workers have claimed they are being forced to attend.

An opposition protester told the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that he lost his job for participating in a demonstration on December 10.

It was unclear what impact the weather warnings will have on protesters.

The state-run RIA Novosti news agency has published an information graphic in which it advises protesters to take along a thermos.

Onishchenko said, however, that sipping warm drinks could be counterproductive.

“Yes, at the beginning it has a brief positive effect, widens blood vessels and maybe causes perspiration, but then it all goes back to the beginning except this time with a lower threshold,” he said.

He added that drinking alcohol to keep warm would also have an adverse effect.

Onishchenko, who has served as chief health inspector since 1996, has been criticized for diligently carrying out the Kremlin's bidding, specifically in foreign affairs.

At the height of souring relations with Tbilisi and Chisinau, Onishchenko declared that Georgian and Moldovan wine was not fit for consumption, leading to trade embargos decimating the countries’ most lucrative exports.

Most recently, amid a dispute with Ukraine over the price of natural gas exports, he suggested that country's cheese is not up to Russian standards.

Compiled from agency reports

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