Stability, the lack of an alternative and patriotism were the buzzwords on Thursday afternoon as tens of thousands of supporters of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s bid to secure a third stint in the Kremlin packed a snowy south Moscow stadium.
“If not Putin right now, then who?” read a placard held by pensioner Nikolai Dolinin as he waited to enter the cavernous Luzhniki stadium, the venue for the well-orchestrated pro-Putin rally that came just over a week before the March 4 presidential polls.
“I don’t see any other candidate capable of leading Russia right now,” he said. “Under Putin we have stability and bread on the table. What more can you ask for?”
Inside the arena, the at times oddly subdued crowd waved banners bearing portraits of the ex-KGB officer and held up signs with slogans such as “Vote stability – vote Putin!” A host of Russian celebrities and musicians took turns warming up the audience before Putin strode out alone onto the stage.
“Do you love Russia?” he asked and the crowd, which organizers said numbered 130,000, cheered in the affirmative. In an echo of an event at another sports stadium in Moscow last November, a number of apparent catcalls were also audible when Putin made his appearance.
“I want stability to continue – and that is what we have now. Of course, Russia has lots of problems, but Putin has built a foundation for the future. I don’t want a return of the 1990s, of the economic default of 1998,” said engineer Sergei Andreyev as he munched on free food handed out at the rally.
“To govern such a large country you need experience, and the other candidates just don’t have that,” he said.
But he and a number of others present at the rally hesitated when asked if they would like to see Putin remain in power until 2024. Presidents can serve two consecutive terms of office under the Russian constitution, the length of which has been extended from four years to six as from the 2012 elections.
“Things change,” said Muscovite student Tatyana Korzhokova. “But right now, Putin is the man for the job.”
But Putin, who served as president between 2000 and 2008, is facing the biggest show of dissent since he first came to power, with protests that initially erupted over alleged vote fraud transforming into a focus point for opponents who accuse him of corruption and stifling the country’s political and economic development.
Three mass rallies have taken place since widespread accusations that election officials conjured up victory for Putin’s United Russia party at December’s parliamentary polls and so far a combined total of some 200,000 people have taken to the streets of Moscow in demonstrations given the green light by the authorities.
Thursday’s rally was the second mass show of support for Putin in Moscow in recent weeks. Opposition figures have alleged that government employees and factory workers have been coerced into attending the events. Putin admitted this could be true in some cases, but said the effect on crowd numbers should not be “exaggerated.”
The Union of Machine Builders, the country’s biggest industrial lobby group, and the Russkoye Moloko dairy company were among the companies who sent employees to the stadium on Thursday. Many marched with banners folded up under their arms and a number of placards lay abandoned in the streets surrounding the arena.
“Putin is our president,” read one placard that had been dumped in a puddle of slush.
But for all the indications that some of the crowd would rather have spent Thursday’s Defender of the Fatherland public holiday elsewhere, there were many others clearly besotted with the man whose reign has seen a dramatic rise in living standards for most Russians.
“I adore Putin. He is the only one who can lead Russia. As for [Alexei] Navalny, there is nothing behind him. He has achieved nothing,” said office manager Galina Zhirkova, referring to the opposition figurehead who coined United Russia’s popular, unofficial nickname of “the Party of Swindlers and Thieves.”
But in comparison with the garrulous participants at opposition rallies, many of those who attended Thursday’s rally seemed strangely unwilling to go on record about their “support” for Putin, with over a dozen participants refusing to comment.
“Has the metro opened yet?” asked one attendee, just minutes before Putin was due on stage. “I’ve been fed up ever since I got here.” He refused, however, to give his name and also declined to say why he was at the rally.
“I’d tell you,” he said. “But I don’t need any trouble.”