За честные выборы! (For fair elections!) was the scene Saturday in cities all across Russia. Protesters swelled the streets of cities like Moscow, St Petersburg, and as far away as Vladivostok wearing giant white balloons shaped as condoms. Many had posters of Vladimir Putin smiling while wearing a white condom on his lapel.
One of the most creative displays was a Moscow scene in which large white helium filled balloons carried a giant poster of Mr. Putin up in the air and then as he was blown away with the wind, the crowd waved goodbye to the Prime Minister. This strong reaction came after last week’s nationwide call-in show in which Mr. Putin sarcastically commented that he thought the white ribbons that protesters wore in demonstrations against his government and the early December Duma elections were white condoms as a show of support for HIV victims.
Braving freezing temperatures, thousands of Russians jammed Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue (проспект Сахаров) yesterday to demand free elections and an end to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s 12-year rule. Experts say it is the largest sign of public outrage since the protests 20 years ago that help bring down the Soviet Union.
We believe that several serious challenges now sit at the Putin/Medvedev doorstep:
1- The protests are organized and growing. Although promoted in the social media since on-air television and radio signals are largely controlled by government, the face of the protesters is changing. Today’s protests drew a wide variety of ages, from young software engineers in St Petersburg to angry but determined seniors in Volgograd to upwardly mobile folk in Moscow to truck drivers in Vladivostok. It is too late to try and isolate the protesters into a single demographic group.
2- Unlike in earlier protests immediately following the Duma elections, the opposition groups are cooperating with each other. That they are cooperating and mixing well despite the release last week of pirated telephone conversations by several opposition leaders commenting on each other, is a set-back for the government’s political spin-masters.
How many attended? The government claims about 30,000 and the opposition says 100,000. Many observers say that this event was bigger and appeared to be better organized than the protest on December 10. However live reports from government controlled Russia Today TV played down the attendance numbers but after the event RT adopted the higher figure of 50,000 in televised and wire updates.
Popular blogger Alexei Navalny, a corruption-fighting lawyer and public activist, took to the stage and delighted the crowd as they chanted “We are the power!” Navalny is credited with coining the phrase about ruling party United Russia being “the party of crooks and thieves.” Navalny had been arrested and reportedly roughed up by police for the unsanctioned protest on 5 December. He spent 15 days in jail for that charge.
Russian writer Boris Akunin whose personal blog was hacked early last week asked the crowd if they wanted Putin to return for a third term as president? The crowd shouted back, Nyet! (No!)
Other speakers included Alexi Kudrin, the former Finance Minister for the Russian Federation who was recently fired by President Medvedev. PM Putin called Kudrin “a friend” in Putin’s recent national call-in show but today Kudrin labeled the elections as flawed and called for snap elections.
When it came to reaction to the Kremlin’s recent proposed reforms as outlined in Thursday’s Federal Assembly speech by President Medvedev, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told the crowd that, “We don’t want him.” Nemtsov went on to say that “A thief must not sit in the Kremlin.”
Even former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev got in the act during an afternoon interview on Moscow Echo radio. Gorbachev who is now 80, told the audience that Putin should step down after already serving two terms as president and another as prime minister. Gorbachev advised Putin that stepping down now would solidify the positive things he has accomplished instead of wearing out his welcome with the Russian people.
Recently announced presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov may have given his supporters more confidence today. Although he didn’t speak on stage, Prokhorov attended the rally and told members of the press that if elected his first official action would be to dissolve the contested parliament and immediately call for new elections.
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov flew in from New York to address the crowd. Kasparov said that the government is afraid and “They are huddled up in fear behind police cordons.”
Police were present in large numbers but the crowd was well managed and few confrontations between protesters and police could be seen. As the rally concluded in darkness there was a flare-up between nationalist youth who support Prime Minister Putin and some of the protesters.
Organizers of Saturday’s protest say their goal is a rerun of the parliamentary vote and to prevent fraud in the coming presidential election in March 2012.