Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in Moscow Saturday to press demands for new parliamentary elections and wholesale liberalizing reform in Russia, turning the temperature up on Vladimir Putin and his plans to return to the Kremlin.
Police put the number of protesters within the space authorized for the rally at 29,000 but a far larger crowd was massed behind a long line of metal detectors set up on the street as would-be participants were screened through them one by one. Rally organizers and RIA Novosti correspondents on the scene estimated the turnout number at several times higher than the police figure.
As the demonstration swelled, the Kremlin moved to respond in real time, with a spokeswoman for President Dmitry Medvedev announcing that reforms to ease restrictions on political parties could be enacted quickly.
The atmosphere on Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue, named for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning late Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, was calm but determined as citizens with a wide range of political views turned out to express their opposition to December 4 legislative elections in particular and to Russia’s political status-quo in general.
“Our votes were stolen!” Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption whistleblower and activist, who has become a driving force in the Russian protest movement, shouted to the crowd from a massive stage installed at one end of the avenue.
“We came here to get them back! Give them back right now!” Navalny said to cheers from the crowd.
Boris Nemtsov, a long-time Putin critic and former deputy prime minister, also addressed the demonstrators, appealing to them to go to the polls in presidential elections scheduled for next March 4 “but not to cast one single vote for Putin.”
“Let’s keep Putin out of the Kremlin!” he said, after which the crowd began chanting: “Russia Without Putin! Russia Without Putin!”
As Nemtsov, one of the leaders of the country’s liberal opposition, talked, he got booed by groups of Russian nationalists and Communists who gathered separately in the crowd.
Communists waved red flags, nationalists waved yellow-and-black banners of imperial Russia and liberals waved white flags above the sea of people in downtown Moscow. Many participants of the rally held white balloons and wore white ribbons in lapels as symbols of the protest. In a televised call-in show last week, Putin said that he took these ribbons for condoms when he watched television reports from the previous protest rallies.
Navalny, Nemtsov and other opposition activists were joined on the stage by a diverse group of like-minded protesters including novelist Boris Akunin, Russian music legend Yury Shevchuk and television presenter Leonid Parfyonov.
But while Nemtsov and other veteran opposition activists were present on the stage, many in the crowd made clear they had taken to the street not to support these longtime Putin critics but to express their own views on the state of politics in Russia.
“We have a fine Constitution and it gives every citizen the legal right to public assembly and to expression of our opinions,” said one demonstrator interviewed by the RAPSI legal news service in a video report from the rally.
Saturday’s protest came two weeks after a similar rally, the biggest of its kind in Russia in nearly two decades, to protest the conduct and result of the elections this month to the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, which were won by Putin’s United Russia party.
The demonstrators, a diverse coalition of private citizens, political and social movements and internet activists, have voiced a variety of demands including a rerun of the December 4 elections and the sacking of the country’s top election official, Vladimir Churov.
Medvedev and Putin have vowed to investigate and punish election violators but have given no indication that they are willing to repeat the Duma vote, as demanded by protesters.
Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin addressed a mass demonstration in Moscow on Saturday against recent elections but called on participants to pursue their demands for political change in an organized way and steer well clear of "revolution."
"Russia is entering a crisis," Kudrin told the crowd. "We need able leadership."
He outlined his vision for how to bring about what he described as necessary change in Russia's political system -- a vision that included another parliamentary election after a vote on December 4 won by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party that the demonstrators claim was marred by widespread cheating -- but said this should be a coherent process.
"There are a lot of slogans here but less action," Kudrin told the crowd. "You can't just talk. You've got to start doing something... creation of a platform for dialogue is needed. Otherwise there will be revolution, otherwise we lose the opportunity before us today for the peaceful transformation and the trust that are necessary for a new leadership that will be elected."
The former finance minister said the reform process needed to begin with passage of new laws on political parties followed by legal registration of those parties and an election campaign.
"Only after that can we hold elections," Kudrin said, calling for the resolution adopted after Saturday's rally should contain a call for early parliamentary elections.
Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova meanwhile said that proposals put forth by Medvedev earlier to loosen restrictions on political parties could in theory be put into action with little delay.
“As soon as the bill goes to the Duma and the Federation Council, and we hope that will happen quickly, the president will sign it and parties will be able to register under new rules,” Timakova told journalists.
In a further build-up of pressure on the Kremlin to accommodate the demands of the protesters, the presidential council on human rights said Friday that Vladimir Churov, the central election committee chief whose dismissal has been demanded by the demonstrators, should step down.
In a statement, the council said many reported election violations of many types made it necessary for members to “express distrust in the head of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, and ask him to resign because of a lack of confidence.”
Also on Friday, the national Izvestia daily newspaper published an interview with the Kremlin’s chief domestic politics strategist, the first deputy head of the presidential administration Vladislav Surkov, in which he hailed protesters as the “best part of our society who demand respect,” while calling the existing political system “stupid” and “corrupt.”
Protesters at a massive rally in central Moscow adopted a resolution on Saturday calling for new and fair elections and open registration for all opposition parties by February 2012.
Other demands include the immediate release of all “political prisoners,” referring to political activists detained during protest actions, the annulment of the December 4 parliamentary election results, which they claim were rigged in favor of the ruling United Russia party, the resignation of Central Electoral Commission chief Vladimir Churov, the prosecution of all those involved in ballot stuffing and a vote against presidential hopeful Vladimir Putin next March.
All opposition parties, not only the so-called ‘establishment opposition’, must be registered and allowed to run to ensure genuinely free and fair elections, the resolution said.
Dozens of protesters were detained across Russia.
Protests took place in many Russian cities, drawing from several dozen to several thousand people.
Ten activists from The Other Russia opposition group were detained in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, 22 protesters were held in Nizhny Novgorod, in central Russia and about 20 were detained in the Siberian city of Barnaul.
Police were generally more lenient, in some cases allowing even unauthorized protests to go ahead with no reports of police brutality.