Russian police on Saturday said up to 90,000 people were attending a rally in support of Vladimir Putin in Moscow while 23,000 had shown up at a rival protest march challenging his rule.
“Between 87,000 and 90,000 are attending the (pro-Putin) rally that has started at Poklonnaya Gora” in western Moscow, capital city police said in statement. “Around 23,000 are taking part in the (opposition) march.”
The rally by the anti-Putin movement, its third since disputed December 4 parliamentary polls, is seen as a crucial test of whether activists can keep their momentum to pose a real challenge to the Russian strongman.
“Here have gathered people of absolutely different political views ̶ left, right, nationalists, everyone,” said anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny who has become one of the most prominent opposition leaders.
Crowds were still arriving with activists handing out white ribbons that have become the symbol of the protest movement while other raised banners read “We will keep coming until they go!”
Protestors were wrapped up against the ferocious winter cold with temperatures hitting minus 17 degrees Celsius (1.4 Fahrenheit) in Moscow.
The organizers of the pro-Putin event at Poklonnaya Gora War Memorial Park are hoping their rally will trump the opposition protest and show that Putin retains genuine popular support.
Thousands were already filling the area and waving pro-Putin banners but there have been allegations that state employees like teachers or nurses had been bribed or even blackmailed into taking part.
Putin is standing for a historic third term as Kremlin chief in the March 4 elections after his four year stint as prime minister and his main opposition will come from the Communists, with the main liberal candidate disqualified.
Protesters traded advice on social networking sites on how best to stay warm, and one posted photographs posing in the snow in a turquoise bikini holding the sign: “The cold isn’t scary.”
Putin has promised token political reforms and has mocked the demonstrators, saying they lack leadership and goals and comparing the white ribbon symbol of the protests to condoms.
He has also suggested protest are funded by foreign governments, a claim the opposition denies.
Videos circulated online advertising rival rallies on Saturday, painting the opposition march as a Western-sponsored plot to seed revolution and political chaos in Russia, and echoing warnings by top officials not only to watch out for frostbite but also raising the spectre of revolution.
"Real Russian patriots should stay at home and make babies... not loiter at demonstrations," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was quoted as saying by state RIA news agency.
Russian public health watchdog head Gennady Onishchenko told Muscovites to stay home to beat the cold and “find another way to build a happier state,” Interfax reported.
Organizers of pro-government rallies made no secret these are specifically planned to compete with the opposition march. Denounced by the opposition as a Kremlin-funded farce, they are dubbed the “Anti-Orange Rally,” referring to Ukraine’s 2005 Orange revolution, when Moscow has said Western-funded youth activists helped topple a pro-Russian government.
“People who openly assert their anti-orangist position will walk out at Poklonnaya Gora (on Saturday),” Putin was quoted by Interfax as saying. “I am thankful to them and share their views.”