Tens of thousands of Russians turned out in cities across the country on Saturday in mass peaceful protest over recent elections they claim were rigged in favor of Vladimir Putin’s governing United Russia party, authorities said.
The demonstrations, which began on Russia’s Pacific Ocean coast and moved westwards over eight time zones, were an unprecedented test of Putin’s tolerance and a rare, large-scale display of popular unease with the political status-quo in the country.
In Moscow, thousands of protesters waving banners and chanting slogans like “Swindlers and Thieves!” and “Churov Resign!” – references to United Russia and election commission chief Vladimir Churov – converged on a square in the east side of the city where they had permission to rally.
Police estimated the size of the Moscow rally at around 25,000 people. Organizers said it was closer to 40,000. At one moment, the crowd turned in the direction of the Kremlin and shouted “Putin out!”
“We demand new elections because what happened on December 4 was a falsification,” opposition activist Yevgeniya Chirikova told the crowd.
She was referring to parliamentary elections on that date that many Russian voters and international observers charged were tilted in favor of United Russia despite the fact that the party was hit with a major loss of support in the vote.
Her call was echoed by Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party which failed to win enough votes to gain representation in the Duma, according to the official results.
“We have the right to demand new elections,” Mitrokhin said. “We have the right to demand that law enforcement agencies open criminal investigations of the thousands of thieves sitting in the election commissions.”
There was no immediate comment on Saturday from Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev to the protests. But Andrei Isayev, a senior United Russia official, said the party would take account of the demands voiced by the protesters.
“There is no doubt that people protesting against the result of the vote or against the way it was handled have a right to do this,” Isayev, first deputy secretary of the party’s general council presidium, told RIA Novosti.
“I assure you, we will listen to this rally,” he added.
Putin and Medvedev have said vote irregularities would be investigated. They also said citizens have the right to assemble publicly to express their political views as long as they abide by the law.
Putin on Thursday however accused the United States of meddling in Russian affairs and encouraging the protests after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the December 4 election. He warned security forces would use “all legal means” to maintain law and order.
The security presence was heavy throughout central Moscow and a handful of activists also gathered on Revolution Square near the Kremlin where they had originally planned to meet. But there were no reports of violence and by nightfall crowds were dispersing in Moscow.
Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s human rights ombudsman, praised police for helping ensure the Moscow protest remained peaceful.
“I can only congratulate Moscow police for doing such a good job,” he said.
The rolling, nationwide demonstrations came a day after Russian election authorities announced final, official results of legislative elections giving United Russia 238 seats in the 450-seat State Duma with just under 50 percent of the popular vote.
The Duma vote polarized Russian society, with Putin and supporters describing the outcome as a “real” reflection of the mood in the country while many Russians from various places and backgrounds say they feel the vote was essentially unfair.
“I don’t believe that there is much sense in such rallies, but I came here because we are the people and not the ‘obedient sheep’ that authorities treat us as,” Alexei Potachev, a 54-year-old retired military and a protester, said.
Thousands of people also rallied in cities from the far-eastern port of Vladivostok and the industrial center of Khabarovsk near the Chinese border to towns in the central Ural mountains region.
About 7,000 people gathered for a vote protest rally in St. Petersburg’s central Pionerskaya Square on Saturday, local police said. About 10 people were being held by police there, a police spokesman said.
Many protesters wore white ribbons, which have become a symbol of the protest movement.
“I don’t want my vote that went to the Communist Party to go to United Russia. These elections were a lie and a falsification,” Ivan Sapsalyev, a student and director of an IT company, said.
Over the past week St. Petersburg, the former Russian capital, has seen daily protests by activists accusing authorities of rigging the Sunday vote into the State Duma in favor of the ruling United Russia party. Election officials and the country’s leadership have defended the vote as reflecting the true political sympathies of the Russians. However, Prime Minister Vladmir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have ordered an investigation into complaints of election violations.
Veronika Romashova, a programmer in her 30s, said that she came to the protest because she was upset with the way the elections were conducted.
“I think the authorities showed a total lack of respect for voters. I want new elections, a full investigation and video cameras installed in polling stations in future,” she said.
Police presence at the St. Petersburg was high, with about 15 police vans and cars parked in the area, and groups of OMON riot police stationed at each corner of the square. Two helicopters circled overhead of the rally Saturday.
Dozens of arrests were reported nationwide, but there were no reports of serious violence, police said, as the protests appeared to pass off peacefully on the whole.
The scale and nature of the demonstrations were unprecedented since Putin came to power in Russia 12 years ago and the protests were watched closely as a test of Putin’s tolerance of political competition.
Anger over the December 4 polls saw some 5,000 protesters rally in central Moscow on Monday. Demonstrations continued on a smaller scale in various parts of Russia on Tuesday and Wednesday as well.
At least 1,000 people have so far been arrested in protests over the past five days, police said, including influential blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny.
Navalny, along with another opposition leader, Ilya Yashin, was jailed for 15 days on Tuesday, as a result of their participation in Monday’s protest.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition activist and leader of the unregistered People’s Freedom party, called for another demonstration to be held on December 24.
Russian expats in more than 20 countries also demonstrated on Saturday in a show of solidarity with their compatriots in the homeland, RIA correspondents reported.
About 50 Russians gathered to demonstrate outside the Russian embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, and a demonstration at the Russian consulate in Cologne, Germany, drew 60-80 people.
About 200 protesters gathered in central London, including Katia Zatuliveter, the Russian who two weeks ago won an appeal against deportation from the UK on suspicion of spying for Russia.
A demonstration outside the Pompidou Center in Paris also attracted about 200.
In addition, demonstrations involving no more than a few dozen people were held outside Russian embassies and consulates in Kazakhstan (Almaty), Lithuania (Vilnius), Israel (Tel-Aviv), Italy (Rome), Armenia (Yerevan) and Ukraine (Kiev and other cities).