TENS of thousands of Russians defied bitter cold in Moscow yesterday to demand fair elections in a march against Vladimir Putin’s 12-year rule.
Opposition protesters also organised smaller demonstrations in other cities across the vast country, trying to maintain pressure on Putin one month before the presidential election on 4 March which he is expected to win.
The protesters marched within sight of the red-brick Kremlin walls and towers, chanting “Russia without Putin!” and “Give us back the elections!”
Putin was president from 2000 until 2008, when he ushered Dmitry Medvedev into the Kremlin because of a constitutional ban on three successive terms as head of state. Putin became prime minister but remained the dominant leader.
Temperatures far below freezing tested the power and perseverance of a street protest movement fuelled by suspicions of fraud in a December parliamentary election and dismay among some Russians over Putin’s plan to rule at least six more years.
In the capital, demonstrators bundled up against the cold marched down a broad central street, many wearing white ribbons that have become symbols of protests. A digital clock flashed the midday temperature: minus 17 C.
“Not one vote for Putin!” Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition leader, said to a roar of approval from the crowd at the rally that followed the march. Protesters packed a square across the river from the Kremlin, stamping and clapping to keep warm.
Opposition leaders are trying to maintain momentum after tens of thousands turned out in December for the biggest opposition protests since Putin was first elected president in 2000.
Polls indicate Putin is all but certain to win the presidency despite a decline from previous popularity levels, but opponents hope persistent protests will undermine his authority in a new six-year term and push him into concessions. “We have already reached a point of no return. People have stopped being afraid and see how strong they are together,” said Ivan Kositsky. He said Putin “wants stability, but you can only find stability in the graveyard”.
Kositsky wore an orange ribbon in a reference to the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where peaceful protests following allegations of widespread election fraud helped usher an opposition candidate to the presidency.
Opposition leaders said up to 120,000 people joined their protest in Moscow, which appeared as large as the December rallies – suggesting their fears a cold snap might keep people away were unfounded. Many protesters had banners making light of the bone-chilling weather that read: “Down with the cold, down with Putin.”