Tens of thousands demonstrate against Putin in Moscow

Thousands of people gathered in Moscow on Saturday to call for a disputed election to be rerun, increasing pressure on Vladimir Putin as he seeks a new term as Russian president. (Reuters)

Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin warned on Saturday that Russia risked a new revolution if there was no dialogue between protestors and the Kremlin, in a speech to a mass opposition rally in Moscow.

“There needs to be a platform for dialogue, otherwise there will be a revolution and we lose the chance that we have today for a peaceful transformation” of Russia, Kudrin said in a speech that was nonetheless loudly whistled by protestors.

In addition to that, the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Saturday to heed protester demands and quit politics instead of seeking a third term as president next year.

“I would advise Vladimir Putin to leave now. He has had three terms: two as president and one as prime minister. Three terms − that is enough,” Gorbachev told Moscow Echo radio in an interview.

In Moscow, tens of thousands of people filled an avenue to protest against the alleged rigging of parliamentary polls, in a new challenge to the Russian strongman’s authority.

The protesters chanted “Russia without Putin” and “New elections, New elections” as speakers called for an end to Putin’s 12-year domination of the country at the second big opposition rally in two weeks in central Moscow.

“Do you want Putin to return to the presidency?” novelist Boris Akunin asked from a large stage.

Whistling and jeering, protesters chanted: “No!”

High protesters turnout

 We do not want to scare anyone. But I promise you that next year the leaders will change and power will belong to those to whom it should belong. Power will belong to the people 
Alexei Navalny, Russian blogger

Police said at least 29,000 attended the rally on Prospekt Sakharova (Sakharov Avenue), named after Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov. One opposition leader put the crowd size at up to 100,000 people.

The protest increases the pressure on Putin to implement radical changes in Russia’s tightly-controlled political system as he plans to return to the presidency in March elections after his four year stint as prime minister.

Some protestors held up pictures of Putin with a giant condom draped over his head in the style of an Egyptian pharaoh, in reference to his sneering dismissal of the rallies as resembling an anti-AIDS campaign.

In a hugely provocative speech, blogger Alexei Navalny who has emerged as one of the protest leaders, vowed that one million people would attend the next rally to demand new parliamentary elections.

“I see enough people here to take the White House (the seat of the Russian government) right now. But we are peaceful people and we will not do that − for the moment,” he said.

“We know what we will do. We will go out onto the street until they give back what is ours. Next time, we will bring one million people onto the streets of Moscow,” he said to cheers.

“We do not want to scare anyone. But I promise you that next year the leaders will change and power will belong to those to whom it should belong. Power will belong to the people!”

Amid a festive atmosphere despite sub-zero temperatures, loudspeakers played the legendary song of Soviet rock musician Viktor Tsoi “We Want Change!”

The big turnout is likely to encourage organizers to believe they can keep up the momentum of the biggest opposition demonstrations since Putin rose to power 12 years ago, although the prime minister seems intent on riding out the protests.

Tens of thousands of people protested in Moscow on Dec. 10 and many more demonstrated across the world’s largest country the same day to complain against alleged vote-rigging in the Dec. 4 election won by Putin's United Russia party.

The protesters were heartened by the Kremlin’s human rights council saying a new election should be held, although it is only an advisory body whose recommendations are regularly ignored by Russia's leaders.

Around 100 people took part in a protest in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, an AFP correspondent said, and other rallies gathering up to 1,000 people took place in Siberia.

Kremlin rights panel

Meanwhile, the advisory Kremlin rights panel said on the eve of the protest that the reported violations discredited parliament and had led to the “distrust of the poll results.”

“This discredits the electoral system and the lower house of parliament and... creates a real threat to the Russian state,” it said in a statement, calling for the resignation of election commission chief Vladimir Churov.

It said that new election laws should be put in place “with the aim of then calling snap elections” to replace the current parliament.

But the commission dismissed the call for Churov to resign, with its member Yelena Dubrovina telling the Interfax news agency that "this decision does not have any legal, judicial consequences."

Defying the protests, the newly elected lower house of parliament, the State Duma, held its first session on Wednesday.

The ruling United Russia party won less than half the vote in the elections and lost 77 seats as fatigue set in with the rule of Putin, who is planning to win his old Kremlin job back in March polls and could stay in power until 2024.

But the opposition says the party’s performance would have been even worse in free elections.

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