“When I saw minus 22 degrees Celsius [minus 8 Fahrenheit] on the thermometer in the morning, I realized that there will not be more than 10,000 to 15,000 people,” opposition leader Boris Nemtsov wrote on February 4th, the day of the announced pro-democracy march in central Moscow. His estimate was not even close. A record freeze that engulfed much of Europe this winter did not help Vladimir Putin. Some 120,000 Muscovites filled Bolshaya Yakimanka Street, Malyi Kamennyi Bridge, and Bolotnaya Square—across the river from the Kremlin walls—to restate the demands for the release of political prisoners, the registration of opposition parties, and the holding of free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections; and to pledge not to give “a single vote to Vladimir Putin” on March 4th. Opposition rallies were held in cities and towns across Russia, including St. Petersburg (20,000 participants), Yekaterinburg (6,000), and Omsk (3,500). According to a February poll by the Levada Center, 43 percent of Russians now support the pro-democracy protests.
As in December, the common demand—free and fair elections—united protesters from across the political spectrum. “We are different, but we are all of the same color—the color of the Russian flag. Together we are defending the future of our country, the Constitution, freedom, and the rule of law,” said former presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, who was barred by the authorities from the March 4th ballot, “Life does not end on March 4th or 5th. All is just beginning.” Other speakers at the rally included writer Ludmila Ulitskaya; Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov; Popular Freedom Party co-chairman Vladimir Ryzhkov; and environmentalist leader Yevgenia Chirikova. Russia’s rock legend, Yuri Shevchuk, greeted the protesters with “Motherland,” one of his most popular hits.
Opposition supporters were not the only ones on the streets of Moscow on Saturday. In December, the protests caught Putin by surprise. This time, the Kremlin decided to counter the pro-democracy movement. As anti-Putin protesters marched through the city center, more than 100,000 people gathered on Poklonnaya Gora in western Moscow in a show of support for the regime. The “Anti-Orange rally,” as it was officially called, was organized in the best traditions of Soviet-era “voluntary-obligatory” gatherings. Teachers, doctors, municipal workers, employees of state-run companies and banks, and even members of Parliament and their staff members were compulsorily summoned to the rally. People were brought to Poklonnaya Gora on free-of-charge taxis and buses belonging to state companies. Additional rally participants were being hired for 500 rubles ($17).
The choice of speakers at the pro-Kremlin meeting did more to discredit the regime than opposition criticism. “We came here to prevent an Orange Revolution—not a future one, but the current one, the one that has already started, and that has pointed its spear at the Kremlin,” proclaimed Alexander Prokhanov the editor of Zavtra (“Tomorrow”), Russia’s leading Stalinist and anti-Semitic newspaper. “No to the Orange plague!” chanted Maxim Shevchenko, a nationalist commentator and a staunch defender of Hamas, and analyst Sergei Kurginyan, an avowed supporter of a restored Soviet Union. “The global American empire seeks to establish control over all countries,” affirmed Alexander Dugin, a known apologist of fascism, “Their internal agents … the liberal opposition which gathers on Bolotnaya Square … are doing everything possible to weaken Russia … We have never spared blood—our own or that of others—to make Russia great.” Eduard Bagirov, Putin’s election proxy, called pro-democracy protesters “boneheads and idlers,” and urged to “somehow put an end” to their rallies.
One of the most popular banners at Saturday’s opposition march was “We will be coming until they leave.” The next protests are scheduled for February 26th, and then for March 5th—the day after the presidential election. Russia’s opposition leaders believe that time is on their side. “The mass rallies which took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s were, to be blunt, rallies for sausage. It was a consumer revolution,” Yavlinsky said after the Saturday protest, “The revolution that is beginning in Russia today is a bourgeois one: for freedom, for dignity, for individual identity, for respect.” “Putin’s clan … will not disappear after one, two, or three rallies,” remarked Nemtsov, “We will face a long and difficult struggle with cynical and cruel crooks … It is a marathon that we will surely win.”
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